What is it to ask -
what this thing, Living Educational Theory, is?
Living Educational Theory? - what's that?!
Contributor-correspondent: Moira Laidlaw
Narrator-editor: Peter Mellett
Mentor-correspondent: Jack Whitehead
In 1992, the American Educational Research Association established a Special
Interest Group on the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices. A Methodological
Town Meeting of this Special Interest Group at AERA 1994 examined the possibility
of reconstructing educational theory through the descriptions and explanations
which individual learners produced for their own educational development
in enquiries of the kind, 'how do I improve my practice?' (Whitehead 1993).
In 1995, Teacher Education Quarterly published an Issue on Self-Study and
Living Educational Theory (Pinnegar and Russell 1995) and Russell and Korthagen
(1995) published their view that one day each teacher educator must confront
Jack Whitehead's question: 'How do I help my teacher education students,
and finally their students in the schools, to improve the quality of their
learning?'. This paper explores the dialogical and dialectical nature of
living educational theories and presents a case for the development of such
theories, as appropriate forms of representation for the descriptions and
explanations of the educational development of individual learners. This
paper also explores the issue of legitimation in relation to the standards
of judgement which are appropriate for testing the validity of such claims
to educational knowledge. The paper is intended as a contribution to present
debates on the nature of educational theory and on the problems of representation
and legitimation in new forms of qualitative research and action research.
What is it to ask -
what this thing, Living Educational Theory, is
Living Educational Theory? - what's that?!
The opening title of this paper purposefully mimics one of the possible
translations (Steiner 1989 p.25) of the question asked by Heidegger in 1955:
Was ist das - die Philosophie? '"'What is it to ask -
what this thing, philosophy, is?'"' Steiner's rendering of the German
original into this form of expression in English reflects an insistence
that each questioner remains an integral part of the questioning. The intention
of Heidegger's ontological enquiry is that we tread a path inside
philosophy and give an account of how it is for us as we undertake that
journey. It is not sufficient to stand outside the subject,
to analyse it, and then to look for the construction of a definition.
In a similar manner, we sense that it is not sufficient for us to ask, as
if on your (our reader's) behalf, the question: '"'What is living educational
theory?'"' and then to proceed to give a propositional exposition of
our concept of it. Even if you consider Heidegger's writings impenetrable
and his questioning a sham, we hope you will allow us to adopt his existential
focus on 'is-ness' rather than 'what-ness' as we attempt to show you where
our point of view might lead yours.
Our present point of view about the nature of living educational theories
has been influenced by the lives and work of others. We have experienced
the liberating influence and profound sense of human purpose in John Dewey's
(1916) Democracy and Education; we agree with Michel Foucault's (1977) points
about the indignity of speaking for others when others can speak for themselves
and for the need to develop an aesthetics of existence (Laidlaw, 1995);
we have accepted and acted on Jean McNiff's (1988, 1992) view of the generative
and transformatory potential of educational action research in creating
a good social order and contributing to cultural renewal; we are in communion
with Ben Cunningham's (1995) spiritual commitment to understanding others
and of helping their enquiries to move on; we endorse Orlando Fals-Borda's
(1994) argument that when ideologies are criticized to the point of decreeing
the end of history and the end of utopias, a door is open for neo-Liberals
to discard egalitarian values and to reject the adoption of redistributive
mechanisms of wealth and property, even when these are obviously urgent
and necessary. We also understand the vital significance for the development
of our educative community of our collaboration with Professor Pam Lomax
and of her sustained commitment to enabling the voices of her students to
be heard (Lomax, 1990, 1991).
We also wish to stress that our form of action research (Whitehead, 1985,
1989, 1992) can be understood as an immanent dialectic (Foster, 1982) in
the sense that the meanings of our values are clarified in their emergence
in action through time (Mellett, 1994). In other words our fundamental meanings
and questions are not being expressed in a form of words which may be apprehended
by a removed and objective observer.
Rather than attempting to answer a question, we move in our
attempt to respond to it. This account is not intended to be
an intellectual exercise where the words that enshrine initial premises
beget yet more words as we substitute one unknown for another; where the
description of an abstracted model becomes seduced by its own rhetoric as
the reason that purports to inform it, attempts to give an account of its
own experience of itself (Bernstein, 1991). You, the reader, are not being
asked to assess and then to endorse or deny our claim to be making a contribution
to human educational endeavour. You, the reader, have work to do with us.
We want to know what is it for us and for you to ask - what
this thing, living educational theory, is.
There currently seems to be a feeling amongst a growing band of people -
many ordinary teachers and a few academics - that there is no permanent
framework which can inform educational theory. The search now, as before,
is for a form of theory which can give explanations for people's educational
development. We are trying to make a space where we can have the freedom
to create our own explanations of our own social lives and educational practice,
where these explanations may make a contribution to a wider educational
theory. Our view of personal living educational theories arises in the first
instance from the accounts, the stories, we relate to each other about our
practice and our lives. Sondra Perl (1994) wrote under the title Teaching
and Practice - Composing Texts, Composing Lives:
Stories have mythic powers. To know this ... is to know the shaping
power of the tale. But how, I wonder, do we see beyond the boundaries of
a familiar story and envision a new one? What, in other words, are the connections
between the texts we read and the lives we live, between composing our stories
and composing ourselves?
Each time we meet, each of us tells the latest version of our own familiar
story from our own familiar place. What effect do our stories and the lives
they tell have on each other? Following the classical Kant-Marx split, it
seems we can either expend our efforts in giving our description of the
world or, sensitive to our places in it, we can attempt to improve our world.
The choice is to engage in propositional language-games which modify our
store of knowledge and the way we describe our lives - or we can engage
in '"'real talk'"' (Belenky et al, 1986) which:
... requires careful listening ... creating the optimum setting so that
half-baked or emergent ideas can grow ... reaches deep into the experience
of each participant ...
'"'Real talk'"', for us, implies the '"'ideal speech situation'"'
of Habermas (1976) and the hermeneutic circle of Gadamer (1989) as we engage
in a dialectical reading of the other's emerging story. Under ideal conditions
it recounts our past practice, forms part of our current practice, and informs
our future practice. Actual exchanges between real people usually comprise
a mixture of language games and attempts at '"'real talk'"', as
shown in the following edited transcript. This transcript resulted from
our attempt to move our enquiry forward by engaging five people in discussion
with each other. Having initially read a copy of the opening six paragraphs
of this paper, we explored with each other our own notions of what the phrase
'"'Living Educational Theory'"' means to us. Two diametrically
opposed views quickly emerged.
Pam: Professor of Education
Peter: Past science teacher
Pat: Ph.D. student
Ben: Ph.D. student
Jack: Lecturer in education
Pam: When you talk about theory - living educational theory - do we have
to talk about practice for us to understand living educational theory?
Peter: I believe we do - yes.
Pam: I would believe that too...You see, my concern is that in reading peoples'
work and then thinking about work that I might do myself, is that much of
it lacks the substance, a real key critical issue in life that we want to
do something about. It's becoming too sort of general and up in the air.
I see that as a problem with living educational theory because the concept
itself is located here in this very airy-fairy world of philosophy.
Pat: A 'living' theory suggests an experience. A 'theory' suggests selection
from that experience to see the significance of it for oneself or make sense
of it. And that involves representation. And we are coming back to how the
actual symbolic form of representation that you choose will affect how the
thing grows. Also I'm having difficulty typifying the oral sharing of different
peoples' understanding about what is important to them in education with
this notion somehow that it's become a sort of ontological industry in itself...I
have been changed deeply by some of the things I have read in books just
as much as I have been changed by these sort of conversations. Now you are
trying to elevate something which is just a different kind of representation
to something more than that.
Pam: You know what it is for me I think - living educational theory - is
when you can see in the thing that a person presents - whether it is text
or something else - so that you can immediately see it and grasp it. Living
educational theory is when a person presents something about their practice
and you can see directly the point they are making... And it can be done
through story, a piece of academic writing, a poem, a picture. If you transcribe
and present a conversation and then if I can see directly what is in there,
then I would say yes, that is an example of a living form of theory. It's
what Moira means when she talks about the aesthetic part of her practice
- its aesthetic morphology.
Pat: And they transform themselves into theory?
Pam: Well I think for me that it already is living educational theory. You
can see the points coming out that hit you in the eye they are so important.
I think we can then go on and talk about it and write propositionally about
it. Show somebody else it. But then it's not living for them. It's showing
them an example of what it is for me.
Pat: It seems to me the account enables you to derive your living educational
theory...But whose theory is it anyway?
Ben: You've actually put your finger on it Pat. Something Peter's text says
here about the 'what-ness' and the 'is-ness'. We can talk about yours and
we can talk about somebody else's but I can only talk about mine in its
Pam: I think you can be a bit more removed than that. There is living educational
theory for me in a person's story but that might not be their
living educational theory. It is a question of significance. It's
his story but it may not be his living educational theory. It can be mine.
But a really powerful story one hopes might for everybody be part of a general
living educational theory.
Pat: Take Terry's story that we had before lunch. What living educational
theory do you derive from that?
Pam: I would derive my living educational theory from the discussion we
had about it and the points that people raised and found of interest - things
each contributor pinpointed.
Pat: I would call that generating understanding. I am unhappy with living
educational theory as a term that doesn't actually do anything for
me except confuse the issue.
Pam:Well, what is theory for? Why do we have theory? What's its purpose?
Peter: Well if it is an educational theory then to my mind
it must inform us as to how we might best become. It's to do with our transformation
into the future as we attempt to become better beings.
Ben: Now when I see the word 'living' I assume that it has huge implications
for my practice. Now if it is a theory, it might be like all the other disciplines-based
theories. I could understand those, but a lot of us came to the conclusion
that they had no implications for our practice. But this form of theory
-the first thing to grasp is the understanding and the second one is - am
I going to live it or am I not? And if we are going to try to write something
for people about what it is - to show them how to understand it first and
then to say 'will you take the risk in living it as well in your own terms?'
Pat: But to me theory is about beliefs or concepts It is about abstractions
in relation to the concrete from which I would say abstractions are derived
which gives significance to the concrete. Are we in agreement as to what
we mean by theory? There is no '"'living'"' let alone '"'educational'"'
because theory is conceptual.
Jack: But you see what you are doing now Pat is - I can use a definition
of theory - theory is the determinate relationships between a set of variables
expressed in such a way that you can explain phenomena. If we take your
notion of 'it's conceptual' , then we get the abstract .
Pat: Theory! Theory - as distinct to practice!
Jack: But if you now think dialectically, because there is a transformation
in the way thinking takes place in the two epistemologies. There is the
traditional one you are operating from in terms of concepts. Theory and
practice are separate. And there is a dialectical tradition which says that
they are intimately related and you can unify the two. The very way in which
I am now thinking of theory (Pat continues to interrupt)...that's the problem
for you. You will say that this is not theory at all. And I will say that
I am offering you a dialectical explanation where the principles are embodied
in my practice and that the meanings emerge only in the course of action.
Pat: And so principles are somehow involved in there. You would agree that
principles are essential?
Jack: No. You see what you're doing, or don't you? I also have training
in linguistic philosophy, that which you are now engaged with and that which
I did for months and months just in terms of language and concepts. We played
with them and we understood principles. Understanding a concept involves
grasping a principle and using words correctly. Now if you come to a dialectical
understanding of practice which is what I think Pam is talking about ...
Pam: Fighting with!
Jack:...the understandings emerge over time as Moira has shown in her thesis
about educative relationships. The principles are not linguistic abstractions.
They are actually embodied values of practice. And there is a tremendous
Peter: And then if you live those values truly in your practice, I would
say that you are expressing your 'epistemology of practice' whereby there
has been a transformation away from the list of descriptions and into the
thing living in front of me.
Ben: I was thinking as well over how you could make an intellectual response
to the notion of a living educational theory. And I must say when I first
heard it explained I felt that you could get a far wider response to the
explanation. A holistic response I would have been hoping for in my practice.
Intellectually and academically and affectively I would be somewhere stirred
to move forward by it. To do something about my practice. And that's actually
what I think happened to me originally when I heard Jack explaining it.
It was in June 1992 here at the University staffroom. I can still remember
it. I went home and I wrote about it and I tried to reconstruct the dialogue
because I was very moved by it. The first time I saw - you see what I thought
was that you would hold ideas and would be trying to make these ideas explicit
in your practice. I'd been trying that for years and years and years - well,
had I? - Well, off and on anyway. And suddenly I heard this thing and I
just said this seems to be it, and I couldn't explicate exactly
why - and for me it seemed to be a clear possibility and I think the reason
was because Jack had shown me several examples of what was happening in
practice. And so I had the theory expounded and I saw some evidence from
the practice. And I also had the experience of being addressed holistically
- academically and intellectually, but also affectively I was touched by
it as well.
Pam: Treated seriously too. Treated seriously as individuals and not just
as belonging to exotic groups. And yet having living educational theory
as a notion makes legitimate us presenting these accounts and putting them
into the history of things for other people to do what they like with.
Jack: That's the whole power of it. As we go around and talk about what
we're actually doing and saying, it is actually captivating the imagination
of people because they actually recognise themselves in it - and they want
to share it. Where it's missing is in the Academy where it is not legitimated
as valid knowledge.
I (Peter) sat on the edge of this conversation and listened to Pat's desire
to express and understand her experience in propositional and conceptual
terms. I also heard Jack making his claims for the right of the dialectically-based
alternative view to be accepted as legitimate knowledge. There was little
'real talk'. My only contribution had been to affirm my own understanding
of living educational theory in terms of an intention to act from an epistemology
of practice which entails the form of embodied knowing spoken
of by Belenky et al (passim).
My own understanding of living educational theory rests on three premises
which to me are almost self-evident:
* what I am is the result of my own educational development;
* my own living educational theory derives from my making a claim that I
understand my own educational development;
* educational research and the theories of education it claims to generate
should themselves be educational.
My personal theory has the power to account for my own educational development
and it embraces relationships with other people - both in the living and
in the telling - and it may in turn inform their personal theories. In this
connection, Jack's final comment is worth repeating:
That's the whole power of it. As we go around and talk about what we're
actually doing and saying, it is actually captivating the imagination of
people because they actually recognise themselves in it - and they want
to share it. Where it's missing is in the Academy where it is not legitimated
as valid knowledge.
Educational theory couched in terms of the abstract categories is accepted
into and is legitimated by the Academy. Education touches real people and
draws them together under its influence. As an educator I have a concern
for humanity (my own two children in particular) and for the emancipatory
influences to be seen in education at its best. How do you as an educator
- academic,teacher, parent, associate of others - react to the sorts of
concern expressed by MacTaggart (1994)?:
It is patently clear that we need to do better every day if we are to save
education and ourselves without sacrificing our children, the Third World
and the planet. The best and the worst aspects of Westernism constitute
our ways of thinking, working annd relating to one another. As Kemmis (1992,
p.xxxiii) has argued, we need to work practically and theoretically to help
people to analyse their suffering (Fay, 1975; 1988), to articulate the conditions
that disfigure their lives (Hall, 1986), and to use those processes of enlightenment
to help develop social movements which can change the conditions of social
life which maintain irrationality, injustice and incoherent and unsatisfying
forms of existence. The changes will be far more fundamental than many of
us are likely to feel comfortable with. This twenty-first century reformation
involves making Western culture less economic, less patriarchical, less
individualistic, less exclusively Judeo-Christian, less ethnocentric, and
less complacent about the weak role played by Western democratic and jurisprudence
systems in protecting people and their rights. Further, it requires reversal
of the subordination of moral idealism by materialism and a more egalitarian
and less environmentally destructive society. We need to bring these ideas
to people's attention if they have not already heard them, and to help them
and each other to take new forms of informed action. Though it cannot be,
and never has pretended to be, a panacea for all ills, partcipatory action
research in its many guises seems an indispensable part of that process.
Whether (as we do) you accept the above as a banner worthy to travel under,
or whether you regard it as yet more idealistic nonsense, we hope you will
agree that arriving at some understanding of what constitutes a valid theory
of education would seem to be an endeavour worthy of our collective attention.
Educational research and the theories of education it claims to
generate should themselves be educational.
The grounding of the alternative perspective we are trying to show you here
goes back a long way. More than forty years ago, in the first edition of
the US journal Educational Theory, Kilpatrick (1951) expressed
the concern that we must come to understand educational theory as a form
of dialogue which has profound implications for the future of humanity.
Apparently unheedful of this concern and for the following thirty years,
it seems the British and US research communities remained secure in their
view that educational theory was constituted by the disciplines of the philosophy,
psychology, sociology, and history of education. These communities now seem
to suffer a crisis of confidence (Hirst, 1983 e.g.) because the 'disciplines'
approach has failed to produce valid descriptions and explanations for the
educational development of individuals. If philosophy attempts to enquire
into our state of being in the world, then educational theory
must question the attempts we make at becoming. My appeal here
is to those who would seek to find a way forward, complementing the disciplines
approach, and yet moving beyond it.
If you would seek to find such a way forward by embracing the notion of
living educational theory and its implications for your practice, then we,
the three originators of this article, would make several assumptions about
the sort of person you are most likely to be. Our first assumption is that,
in both your professional and personal life, you are already engaged in
practical enquiries of the kind: '"'How do I improve what I am doing?'"'
or: '"'How can I help you to improve what you are doing?'"'. Tom
Russell and Fred Korthagen (1995) for example, take the view that:
On day each teacher educator must confront Jack Whitehead's question, 'How
do I help my teacher education students, and finally their students in the
schools, to improve the quality of their learning?'.
(Russell & Korthagen, 1995).
Our second assumption is that you recognise your capacity for systematic
enquiry in that you have already worked at improving your practice by: (1)
imagining how you might improve, (2) deciding on a plan of action, (3) acting,
(4) evaluating your actions, and (5) modifying your concerns, ideas and
actions in the light of your evaluations. In other words, we are assuming
that you will recognise that a systematic form of action enquiry - research
with, as against research on - already exists in your practice. Our third
assumption is that you have the capacity to describe and explain such enquiries
from the point of view of a personal 'I', having made the decision to understand
the world from your own point of view, claiming originality and exercising
your judgement with universal intent (Polanyi, 1958).
Having described the sort of person who might share our perspective, we
now hear you saying: '"'Well, OK so far - but where's the beef?
On what foundations does this new approach to educational research rest?
Can it justify the bid it is making for my serious consideration and validate
its claim to constitute a form of knowledge?'"' We respond to
these questions by starting from the premise that for educational theory
to be directly relevant to educational practice it must have the power to
explain an individual's development. One of the major problems which lead
to the discrediting of the traditional 'disciplines-based' form of educational
theory arose from its inability to produce adequate explanations for the
educational development of individuals. A theory should also be able to
answer questions concerning 'why' things happen. In the approach to educational
theory advocated here, the 'why' questions are answered in terms of 'value'
rather than in the terms of cause-and-effect reductionism. Like Ilyenkov
(1982) we take 'value' to be a human goal for the sake of which we struggle
to give our lives their particular form.
In this manner, as the '"'I'"' in an action enquiry question looks
back on an educational enquiry of the sort: '"'How can I engage my
practice with yours so that we might both improve our being?'"' (thus
becoming) and as the '"'I'"' attempts to construct an explanation
which accounts for his or her experience of that enquiry, '"'I'"'
is charged with having to make a valid claim that he or she understands
his or her educational development. If we consider the process of education
(human growth) to be a value-laden activity then it is often the case that
I experience myself as a living contradiction: I hold certain educational
values and I experience myself having to deny these values in my practice.
I exist as '"'a concrete unity of mutually exclusive opposites'"'
(Ilyenkov 1977) - the pre-requisite of the dialectical form. The meanings
of my ethical values emerge in the course of my attempts (through my educational
enquiries) to overcome their negation (Feyerabend, 1975). The logic which
informs my ethical values and which holds a description of myself as a living
contradiction cannot be propositional: it is more likely to be dialectical
(Hume, 1738: The autonomy of ethics - statements
of value and statements of fact form logically independent forms of discourse).
In my own educational development, matters of fact and matters of value
are integrated in my personal experience and in my knowledge of practical
problems expressed in questions of the sort given above. If I am able to
present a claim to know my educational development in a way which truly
represents this integration of matters of fact and matters of value, then
I am making an expression of my own living educational theory.
We are here deep in a propositional argument; let us follow it further.
There are standards of judgement in relation to any theory, including a
living form of educational theory and any account implying one. Two fundamental
questions in epistemology are:
1 "What is to be judged?" and
2 "How can the validity of a claim to knowledge be tested?"
What is to be judged in this instance are the life-processes implicit in
the writing which constitutes an account and its claims. Testing the validity
of our claim to knowledge requires that we know the standards of judgement
and the unit of appraisal to be used. We hold the unit of appraisal to be
the individual's claim to know their own educational development. Each claim
constitutes the latest version of our own personal living educational theory.
In linking our claims and personal theories, we seek to understand if the
explanations we offer for our educational development have a shared form
and content which can be determined in relation to our standards of judgement
(a) The spiritual value of the I-You relation in Buber's (1923) work on
(b) The aesthetics of existence (Foucault, 1979).
(c) The ethical principles of freedom, justice, democracy, dialogue, truth
and knowledge in relation to the work of Peters (1966) and McIntyre (1990).
(d) The scientific value of the systematic form of action reflection cycle.
(e) The logical standards of a dialectic in relation to the work of Ilyenkov
(1977) and MacIntyre (1990).
(f) Cognitive standards in our forms of propositional knowledge.
(g) Economic awareness of the world of work.
Following Foster (ibidem) the methodology for analysis is that
of an immanent dialectic incorporating value-words. Our intention is to
attempt to clarify the meanings of our values through practice as we help
each other to take our enquiries forward. We are not simply grasping at
a description of the abstract principles of dialectics and then applying
them; our form of dialectics is the medium through which the meanings embodied
in our practice emerge over time. The process of analysis in terms of the
above standards of judgement constantly attends our explanations as we strive
to explicate them.
You are carrying out your own appraisal of the value of the ideas contained
in this paper. As you engage with this writing we would ask you to feel
as well as think as you apply your own analysis to the text you are reading.
Do not ask: 'Is this true' but rather, with Vico, ask: 'What does this mean?'
Do not analyse reductively point by point; rather, read with critical
awareness (Standley, 1992), even with that attitude spoken of by
Samuel Taylor Coleridge as: "That willing suspension of disbelief for
the moment which constitutes poetic faith." Whilst there are cognitive
qualities to our language, try to search beneath the surface and listen
for resonances between the meanings and significances of the values in our
lives and those within your own.
Putting aside for the moment epistemological considerations of validity,
generalisability, and representation (see Denzin and Lincoln, 1994), standards
of judgement and units of appraisal (as discussed above), it would seem
that we have a basis here for suggesting an alternative form of educational
theory which is embodied in your, my, and our forms of life, as practitioners,
rather than existing in a propositional form within textbooks on library
shelves. We can draw on those propositional texts and commentaries to gain
insights into our own practice, but our accounts and the claims they embody
can never be reduced to an analysis of those texts. Such an alternative
form of theory has been called 'A Living Educational Theory' (Whitehead,
1989; Pinnegar, Russell, et al 1995).
Living educational theory has its life and its immediacy through the agency
of the dialectic. What we seek from a dialectical form of engagement is
the notion that new meanings may be made because there is a
different perspective to be had - previous views of educational theory cast
in the mould of the academic disciplines take on a new role where they inform
individual's accounts of their understanding of their own living educational
theory. We look for a paradigm shift that is the gestalt shift from within,
not a flight from here to a new place. We see the need to reassess from
within, not to recast - find a new form of control - from without. Remember
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989) - We strive
... to learn how to grasp and express the past anew.
Now, having achieved that shift and arrived at new understanding, we are
of course left with that often-impossible task spoken of by Joseph Campbell
... the task emerges of communication: communication that will not immediately
drag the whole discourse - and one's life itself - down and back into the
In this respect we are forced at this point to acknowledge that the whole
of the foregoing exposition has been couched in terms of propositional statements.
Now this paper is concerned with the dialogical foundation of a living form
of educational theory through action research, as a result of the descriptions
and explanations we construct to answer questions of the kind: 'How do I
improve my practice?'. As such, if this paper is to be valid and if it is
not to suffer the fate hinted at by Campbell, it cannot transgress in its
own form that for which it purports to give an account. If the logical underpinning
of such a theory is dialectical, then we must create a dialogical space
in which to explore its nature further with you.
Meeting in such a dialogical space requires dialectical
engagement and the presence of the participants; it results
in movement towards new understandings and the engendering
of living educational theory. We believe that all four
of these qualities show themselves in the course of the following edited
extracts taken from an occasional paper of 27,000 words entitled How
can I help my year nine English students and myself to develop our own educational
standards of judgement through our educative relationships? The setting
is a girls' school in Bath, England and the extracts concentrate on the
relationships between Moira, an English teacher and teacher researcher,
and two of her students, Claire and Sarah. Moira has submitted to the University
of Bath (September, 1995) her Ph.D. Thesis on 'How do I evolve educational
standards of judgement through my educative relationships in order to develop
an educational epistemology of practice?' She now speaks with her own voice
as her abstract sets the scene:
This article aims to describe and explain a process of education with a
group of Year Nine English students as I helped them to develop educational
standards of judgement by which they might appropriately evaluate their
own work. Through the media of the action research cycle, critical friends
and interactive journals, I document six weeks at the end of this present
academic year in which the girls were encouraged to develop their own areas
of interest and activity during the lessons and to work with their critical
friends in evaluating their self-chosen projects using standards of judgement
of their own devising. As the six weeks passed I became aware of the developing
nature of my own educational standards of judgement in terms of how I could
evaluate the work I was doing with the group. (NB. The childrens' spelling
has not been corrected here).
I invite you to judge this article through my own criteria which are:
1) Trustworthiness: Do you believe in the account as I
have represented it? Am I a trustworthy narrator?
2) Respect for Individuals. Kincheloe (1991) writes that
one of the marks of a 'good' teacher is the extent to which she listens
to her students.
3) The encouragement of a learning community through the values
of love and educational challenge. Do I point out kindly the necessity
for attending to the needs of others as each individual follows her own
learning needs to do with English?
4) Heartfelt. Are my descriptions and explanations of this
educational process heartfelt? Do I reveal how much it all means to me?
I wanted to set them free and give them an opportunity to work on something
which required them to take a greater responsibility for their own learning
- Rogers (1983); Kincheloe (1991). The idea of articulating the standards
of judgement by which the educational value of a piece of work can be judged
comes originally from Clarke et al (1993) in relation to the validity of
action research accounts in education. I am concentrating in particular
on two girls' work - Sarah and Claire - because they reveal a variety of
approaches and responses to the work they undertook.
I am concerned to promote the pupils' own voices. I believe that Claire
was being challenged to find her own voice. The issue of expression is one
which has come up before in Claire's journal. Three months earlier (March
'95), she had written:
Sometimes I want to say things but I don't know whether they are right
or not, and sometimes I get carried away with my ideas and I don't know
when to stop. I'm afraid of being wrong or being laughed at but I sometimes
feel I have something diffrent to say that only I can say. Does that seem
This questioning seemed to be genuinely enquiring. She wanted to
understand something which was of value to her and she has pursued this
interest for these three months. She is not searching for answers to my
questions but to her own. She seems to be wanting to know how she can express
what she thinks is of value in a way which does not violate her own sense
of what is right. I asked in her journal:
May 4 '95. What is it you're trying to write, Claire? And how are
you trying to write it?'
May 7 '95. I feel I have a lot to say but I don't know how to say
it and yet I do. Sometimes I like the way I write, but it's not the way
most people write, so I don't know if I should?
May 8 '95. I think you should just do it. If you have something to
say, say it.
She had started to be able to articulate her desire to set herself free
from the constraints of her lack of confidence and her preoccupation with
the formal aspects of the subject and she was openly asking my help in freeing
her from constraints that were stifling her. (At least this was how I was
At the start of the final six weeks I had passed the initiative for the
direction of the girls' study over to them. I was excited at the prospect
of what Claire was going to do because one of the reasons I came into education
was to enable others to explore, within carefully negotiated parameters,
what it is that concerns them. After the examinations in May she had written:
June 7. New Target. The exams are over and I have decided
on a new target! Yes, I have decided what I am going to do but have absolutely
no clue whatsoever as to how I am going to go about it. I have decided to
try and spend the rest of this term trying to write more freely and enjoy
it. I want to express myself well, I want to be able to get my feelings
In my own journal I wrote:
I have been worried that I have not offered sufficiently creative
guidelines for the girls and that I am not behaving as a responsible educator.
And yet I am. This is responsible education. Letting them come
to their own understandings in their own time. I've read the books, heard
the rhetoric, written it myself, but this time, I feel it has the potential
to become truly emancipatory for us all. I've got a feeling that by probing
Claire about the standards of judgement she can evolve for herself, I am
setting her free from not just formal constraints in school, but the restraints
she feels inside, which I perceive as destructive of her self-esteem and
sense of well-being, as well as destructive of her creativity and authentic
responses to English.'
I am pleased with these comments because they are touching on evolving
an educational standard of judgement with value to the individual, and giving
that standard a legitimacy which should help to empower the individual.
At this time Claire decided that one of the components of her project would
involve a clay representation of T.S. Eliot's world and its relationship
to her own quest for freedom. Thus most of Claire's English lessons over
the next three weeks were spent away from my classroom. I visited her every
lesson in order to keep in touch. Otherwise she directed her own programme
of study. During this time she produced a list of criteria by which she
wanted her work to be judged:
2) Understanding of the concept;
4) Relation - to the source;
5) Theme - point (putting it across);
7) Effort and time;
8) Amount of concentration;
9) Creativity (helps to explain the origionality);
10) Approprate to the occasion;
11) Poetic use of languague.
It was, however, at this time that a breakthrough occurred in terms of Claire's
own original response to the task of articulating her standards of judgement.
During a conversation with her in the art room I had asked: '"'How
am I as someone who doesn't know anything about sculpture or dance going
to be able to judge the value of what you've done?'"' She replied:
'"'It has to be heartfelt - it has to come from the heart'"'.
As a result of this conversation I wrote (inter alia) the following
Dear Claire, There's something enormously exciting about your work
at the moment - not just the clay work itself, but in particular about the
standards of judgement that you're devising. And that's what's so unusual!
When was the last time you heard a pupil saying not only what her
work was to be, but how it was to be judged too? And your standard
of judgement is also new - a 'heartfelt' criterion! ... What is 'heartfelt'
about it? Why does it matter to you? How/What are you learning? Does it
matter to you to set your own criteria? Why? Why not?...
Claire responded the next day:
The cage door has been unlocked although I must push it open. I do
not rush as I do not know what lies beyond. A whole world waiting to be
explored but few will be given the chance. Others will waste their chance
plucking at the bars repeating something they have done for many years,
a few may not even bother to look up they have no desire to explore the
unknown. However, I have found the door each day opening it a little more
as the chains from around my feet slowly crumble to dust leaving me with
a new opportunity to fly free! I do not know what lies ahead as I express
my feelings in a new way. How I wish everyone could be given the same chance
as I, however if they had never been captured they would not be grateful
for their freedom. I worked hard for my freedom setting myself targets and
judging my achievements and faults. Nobody else could have done that for
me, no rule could have accommodated for me as well as for everyone else.
We are all different and should be treated accordingly. It would be no good
telling everyone in the cage to look up at the unlocked door if some have
no desire for freedom. Each person is their own person an individual and
different to the next it would be wrong to treat them the same.
To me, this piece of writing represents an authentic voice of someone
arguing on her own behalf, with acknowledgement to the differences between
human beings, and also compassion for those who cannot understand what she
now understands as being so valuable. I am reminded of the educational standards
of judgement I set myself where I claim to be concerned to promote the pupils'
own voices and to enable them to come up (in negotiation) with their own
solutions to their own concerns. This standard of judgement answered the
question I had posited in an earlier action plan:
Question - How will I know when I have improved the quality of my
teaching and learning with this group?
Answer - individuals will feel freer to voice their opinions.
I feel that Claire has internalised the educational standard of judgement
by which she wants her own work to be judged - the 'heartfelt' criterion.
Through the way in which she has expressed herself I can infer a sense of
strength from within where she is speaking for herself about something which
concerns her and is articulating it in a decisive way.
I also feel she has pointed towards a compassion towards others, a concern
for the needs and realities of other people, revealing a dialectical awareness
of personal responsibility and social context: 'How I wish everyone
could be given the same chance as I.' and: 'If they had never
been captured they would not be grateful for their freedom.'
In contrast, Sarah had written on March 13:
All my ideas come from things people have mentioned in class, I just
extend them a bit. I know it's really selfish but I really like to be the
best in everything (I can't help it) and if I'm not I think I've failed.'
I wrote to Sarah on June 11:
'I would like to feel that by the end of this term you feel more confident
about setting the agenda. How can I help you to take more responsibility
for your own learning? I think you lack the confidence to pursue your own
line of enquiry. I see these final weeks as a real testing ground for you
in which you make decisions about how you can most appropriately express
yourself, and also what constitutes for you 'good' work.
Sarah then proposed this in her journal on June 18:
'I was a bit worried about what I was going to do but the idea has
kind of grown on me. I really would love to write a story, with illustrations.
I have wanted to for ages now, but I never found the time. The first chapter
of a book is one that I always remember, and I'd love just to work on the
first chapter and make it brilliant (well, I'll try...)
I wrote back to her on June 19:
If you look back through your work, you'll see how much you've done
in terms of taking responsibility for your own learning. Always looking
to teachers/authority figures to set the parameters can be limiting in terms
of your own creativity.
In her planning book, Sarah wrote a detailed plan of her work:
...I am going to start my researching into other writers' works and
looking at all kinds of different writing styles. I am going to look at
how they have brought up different emotions, and how they make the reader
feel these emotions too...'
She then (dated June 21) set out her standards of judgement:
1) Originality: - If my original idea was individual and creative. Also
if it is something new, that I have never done before and would like to
2) Presentation: - If it is neatly presented, and you can see that a lot
of care and time has been taken over it.
3) Spellings/punctuation: - If there are very few (one or two on each A4
sheet) or no spelling or punctuation mistakes.
4) Ipsative evaluation: - If I personally have improved any work I have
5) Enjoyment: - If you can see that I have enjoyed it (an aesthetic feeling).
6) Your enjoyment/understanding.
7) Perception: - Whether I have understood what the author is doing (their
8) Practicality: - Whether I have put into practice my ideas/conclusions,
or if I haven't actually used them in my chapter, that I have shown that
I understand how to 'use' them.
9) Understanding: - Do you understand what I am talking about, or could
I be talking about the velocity of space for all you know or care?
It is significant that Sarah did not feel it necessary to discuss these
criteria with me. She discussed them with her critical friend but sought
no corroboration from me as to the appropriateness of her own devised criteria.
I would claim that this is a development from her earlier position.
... and the growth of a learning community.
It was a sultry afternoon with the girls all seated in the Hall, chatting
amongst themselves. Claire's was the first to be seen. In her journal she
had produced a list of 'events' for the Eliot presentation which she used
as a guide on the day:
'Burial of the Dead Poem'
Response (of above)
Criteria for clay work
Mention of 'What the Thunder Said'.
Does it mean something to you?
Cage writing & Poster
She started her performance with these words:
It's this 'feel free' thing. It really meant something to me.She
had asked me to read out the first part of Eliot's poem as it contained
a few lines of German, interestingly enough, about a statement of personal
identification. She then displayed her claywork to us, describing its various
facets and how they related to the poem and to her own sense of freedom.
Then she said this:
For my clay I was told to make some criteria to be judged on. At first
I thought, well, I don't really know because I've never done this before.
But I came up with some things that were different and I decided that one
of the criteria it should be judged on is 'heartfelt' - what it means to
me. Because to some other person who doesn't know what it means, it could
mean nothing and then I don't think it would be judged so well. You have
to put it in the context with the poem. Otherwise it won't mean anything
really. It's also another way of expressing my self. I've never really expressed
myself in clay before. I mean I've made clay. I've made a polar bear and
an elephant, but I've never expressed myself before. What I
feel. What my reaction is! There are other things, like the theme
and the point of it and the originality that it should be judged on, but
the main think is that it's different to everything else I've done.
Claire appeared to me at this point to be unselfconscious and determined.
She smiled at the girls as she talked to them. And when she said how much
it meant to her: '"'... but I've never expressed myself
before. What I feel. What my reaction is! '"'
she laid her hand on her heart.
It is not simply that she was expressing something authentic and important
to her in an environment which was facilitative, but there was something
about being in the room whilst she did it that was truly educative. It was
moving, sincere, informative, thrilling, and above all, heartfelt.
For those moments during Claire's performance, and particularly when she
pointed to her heart - living out the value to her of what it meant for
something to be heartfelt - we seemed to be a community. I watched the faces
of the girls during Claire's performance. I sensed wrapt attention, admiration,
respect, gentleness, enthralment. Then she danced for us to a piece of music
whose title was 'The Cage'. She said that it 'comes from my heart', and
that was how we were to judge it (remember the exhortation written by Beethoven
over the autograph score of the Missa Solemnis).
On Friday 21.7.95., the last day of term, Sarah gave me the following letter:
I really don't know where to begin by writing to you. You've made such an
impact on me, that saying thankyou would be demeaning. You've changed my
whole outlook, not only to English, but to other people, and their thoughts
and feelings. I used to be very resentful of others who I thought were 'beating'
me, and I felt I always had to be first. But it's like trying to race a
car with a rocket. They are travelling in different directions, so there
is no way they can race. That's just like us. We're all travelling in different
directions, and the only race we can win is our own And by trying to cheat
in that race, we're only cheating ourselves. You helped me to realise that.
Instead of resenting people that seem to be better than me, I've learnt
to admire them, and be proud for them of what they've achieved. Claire's
presentation on Thursday made me realise that. I found myself really admiring
what she had done, instead of getting jealous, and despising her.
I also began to realise how wonderful our class is. Claire had the confidence
to really show what she felt, and tell everyone her personal feelings. She
wouldn't do that to an audience she didn't trust, or felt self-confident
in front of. I was really touched by the way she had the confidence to perform
in front of us....
In some senses, in Sarah's letter I sense some of my most profoundly held
educational values reflected back to me. Sarah's ability to evaluate - for
herself and her own life - the meaning of Claire's performance, and Claire's
exposition of some of what could be inferred as her ontological values,
suggest to me that with these two girls I was a facilitator in a truly educative
process. As a result of the processes we went through I would claim that
both Claire and Sarah know their worth as human beings more fully than before,
and that they are also aware of some of the responsibilities they have to
others in the world.
In many of the communications with the girls I felt addressed as a human
being in the way which Buber (1923) writes about as the 'I/You' relationship.
I was fully present, enabled '"'to see life grow'"' (Yamamoto,
1990). I feel affirmed in what I have been trying to do with them. Leahy
(1995) expresses his understanding of morality in this way:
Morality is not just the result of commitment to a reasoned principle, but,
quite simply, goodheartedness, a caring attachment to others... Because
our identity is formed in dialogue, attempts to achieve authenticity without
regard to others, is self-defeating.
I think that many of the girls and I have benefited from educative relationships
in which a search for educational standards of judgement has become itself
a way of both embodying the values of respecting others within a social
and curricular framework and an educational objective.
As I have helped the girls to articulate how they wish their own work to
be judged and to work constructively with others in the formulation of their
own educational standards of judgement I have emphasised the value
of respecting others, of the creation of a supportive learning community,
and the relationship between the two.
I (Peter) have a final image I would like to share with you which arises
from all this discussion, reflection, and telling. It is an image of myself
metamorphosing into one of the more fanciful aliens portrayed in a recent
episode of the television series Babylon 5. My credentials
for undertaking The Great Quest are in doubt, and I face The Inquisitor.
Inquisitor: Who are you?
Me: Peter Mellett
Inquisitor: Unacceptable answer. I already know your name. Who
Me: Ex-teacher of science, freelance writer and editor, action
researcher, Justice of the Peace.
Inquisitor: Unacceptable answer. That is only your title; what
other people call you when you choose to hide behind formalities. Who are
Me: Son of Mary and Ernest, husband of Jane, father of ...
Inquisitor: Unacceptable! What a sad thing you are. Unable to answer
even such a simple question without falling back on references and genealogies
and what other people call you. Have you nothing of your own? Nothing to
stand on that is not provided - defined, delineated, stamped, sanctioned,
numbered and approved by others? How can you be expected to fight for someone
else when you haven't the faintest idea who you are ? ......
We must all face the Inquisitor at some stage in our lives - sooner rather
than later. Moira has written earlier:
As a result of the processes we went through I would claim that both Claire
and Sarah know their worth as human beings more fully than before...
Sarah, in particular, knows better who she is. For my part, I use my own
comprehension of living educational theory to face the questions: Have
you nothing of your own? and How can you be expected to fight
for someone else when you haven't the faintest idea who you are ?
What I have of my own is my understanding of who I am, as enshrined in the
claims I make that I understand my own educational development. I know why
I am as I am - how my current state of being came to be - through the form
of my own living educational theory. How I fight for others in the educational
context of becoming is by helping them to construct their own personal living
educational theories. In doing so I further my own as together we address
questions of the sort: '"'How can we help each other to improve the
quality of our individual practices?'"'
It is now your turn to answer the Inquisitor.
Who are you ? ...
(or: What is it for you to ask - what this thing, Living Educational Theory,
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