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 present 'is-ness'.

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 difference.

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 which include:

(a) The spiritual value of the I-You relation in Buber's (1923) work on education.
(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 (1976):

... the task emerges of communication: communication that will not immediately drag the whole discourse - and one's life itself - down and back into the now-transcended mould.

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 arrogant?

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?'

She replied:

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?

I responded:

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 interpreting it).

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 across ...

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:

1) Presentation;
2) Understanding of the concept;
3) Originality;
4) Relation - to the source;
5) Theme - point (putting it across);
6) Enjoyment;
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 to her:

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 try.
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 done before.
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 'devices')
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.

The presentations

... 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)
Clay explination
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:

Dear Miss
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.

: Who are you?

Me: Peter Mellett

Inquisitor: Unacceptable answer. I already know your name. Who are you?

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 you?

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, is?)


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