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How do I understand living theory?

How might I enhance my work as an educator who is interested in enabling the learning of others in a socially just way?

My work as an educator was always influenced by a living-educational-theory stance although I didn’t recognise this until I studied this approach to creating theory from practice as part of a Master’s Degree in Education. I have worked as an educator across all levels – including early childhood, preschool, primary, 2nd level, 3rd level and postgraduate, special education, adult literacy, initial teacher education and continuous professional development. My aim always was to open up new avenues for myself and others to share knowledge. I found it easy to imagine ways to act towards creating what I considered to be a more just society but I had difficulty recognising and articulating an ethical framework on which these actions were based.

During a Researching Education Module of an MA in Education, I began to address this challenge (McDonagh 1999 pp.16-19 see [1]. At that time I was studying my practice in relation to the learning of pupils with dyslexia who had auditory difficulties, and began to realise that practical activities in education are value laden and to state for the first time the value of relationships in learning. I identified other values in my practice: the right of every pupil to learn according to his own strengths; the work of the teacher to teach the child, and not skills; quantitative measuring of learning replaced with the value of relationships in learning. Living through the process of self-study action research for my MA gave me a voice in the educational world because a living theory approach offered a valid method to articulate one’s own theories (McDonagh 1999: p.83)[2]

Moving now to my current work as an educator, I have maintained my focus on sharing knowledge with a view to enabling the learning of others in a socially just way. My setting has shifted to learning communities in educational partnerships (see Glenn et al 2017)[3]. I am a co-founder and co-convenor of NEARI [4] and constantly question my understanding of how best to share knowledge within such a community. Here are three examples of the critical reflection I conducted during the past year as I continually questioned my understanding of my work and living theory.

1. Working with Dr.Máirín Glenn we reflected on educational research and practice in our personal, political and professional worlds and considered the dialectical relationship that exists between theory and practice in the current climate of accountability (McDonagh and Glenn 2016) [5]. How does practice influence education theory today?We further questioned: is educational research about a) advancing knowledge of education? b) advancing knowledge of learning processes? c) developing tools and methods necessary to support the advancement of knowledge of education and of learning processes?

2. To gain some understanding of how this dialogical relationship between theory and practice can be enabled in a learning community, I researched the actions of NEARI over the previous three years (McDonagh 2017)[6]p.24 I found nurturing, networking processes existed. I also found that we had engaged in collaborate strategies and resources to support the sharing of expertise among network members. My analysis showed that our work in NEARI had contributed to new ways of supporting meaningful, accredited and non-accredited, educational action research in Ireland; could be compared with a ‘panorama of action research around the world’ (Bruce and Rowell 2017: xiv) and networks of action researchers (Riel 2017) including efforts to link university-based action research with larger communities of practice (Thomas 2017). I also learned the importance of theory as a ‘binding element in growing a network of colleagues across diverse social and cultural domains of practice’ (Whitehead 2017)

3. I next questioned my understanding of valid theory in particular when engaging in a self-study action research process (McDonagh 2017b and see [7]

Living theory for me, an educator, is form of research that establishes a dialogical relationship with practice in ways that support the advancement of knowledge of education and of learning processes. Living theory action research is the glue that can bind educators into learning communities. One can talk the talk of living theory but until one becomes a living theorist it is difficult to demonstrate its validity. All these ideas have been developed through critical reflection in collaboration with colleagues and other researchers. I conclude with an explanation of critical reflection. Critical reflection is complex: it is not easy, or for sissies; it is purposeful action with an intention of learning more about, or improving one’s understanding of, one’s practice, but it is rewarding because it can help us to understand our practice and our contexts and the values that inform us, as we seek to improve what we do’ (Sullivan et al. 2016: p.21).

I now invite others to help me with My Question about another practice setting in which I currently work – the editorial board of EJOLTS. I will first pose a question that I wish to investigate. I will describe and explain my attempts to understand my actions as a author of a paper, an editorial forward and my role on the editorial board. Finally in the 3rd sections I invite collaboration from readers.

My Question

How do I understand the development of educational knowledge in my roles in EJOLTs?


This question refers to what i learned as a person who submitted a paper for publication to Ejolts and what i learned from the discussions, reflections and responsibilities as a member of the editorial board.To tell you where my question came from, I will share some anecdotes and quotations with you. To begin, as a new member of the Editorial Board I expected that, after ten years of continuous publication, there would be well-established fixed processes so that, like other journals, workload would be minimised to online, mainly anonymous communications between reviewers, authors and the Editorial Board.

In 2017 I was honoured to be invited to become a member of the Editorial Board of EJOLTS and to have co-authored a paper [1] for it. My personal background as a teacher (in primary, special education and teacher education) and as a learner (continuously conducting living theory research within these settings) have developed my fascination with the development and celebration of educational knowledge

Not so. Over the past year I did not experience a minimalist focus on product and impact in the work of the Board. Instead there was an open, sharing, collaborative and often time-consuming process of critically examining the actions taken and the understanding behind them. While I have always personally aspired to such an approach in my teaching and research, I was shocked at my own initial reactions.

Here are two of my reactions that were recorded on Skype meetings with Editorial Board members.

  • "Just tell me what to do." (Skype 08.10.2017).

I feel that this indicates a wish to position knowledge unquestioningly as factual information. Why do I resort to a tendency to adopt this position?

  • "You keep confusing me." (Skype 08.10.2017).

I realise that educators involved with EJOLTs have ‘complex lives', constantly evolving and producing new meanings. My knowledge too is continuously reforming as I incorporate my new learning into my system of meaning’ (Sullivan 2006:112). So, replicability is not possible in the EJOLTs processes - even when criteria for acceptance for review and publication have been established for over ten years.

What i did

My understanding of education knowledge was developed over many years of reflection and and study of my practice. I was fortunate to meet with Jean (McNiff) who became my tutor for both my Master of Education from the University of the West of England, Bristol England and PhD from the University of Limerick, Ireland. At my introductory meeting with Jean, she asked what is knowledge? I was very concerned that I could not give and answer. I was drawn to the understanding of knowledge as information and as learning from experience. But I had the sense that Jean needed a definitive answer and that I as a teacher should understand what constitutes educational knowledge. .

My Learning

Reflecting on my work with the Editorial Board, a phrase springs to mind:

"There is no hope of joy except in human relationships." (Antoine Saint Exupéry)

... and my sense of my topic is that there is no hope of new educational knowledge except in acknowledging the role of human relationships with all its confusing uncertainties.

My hope in selecting this question for our collaborative examination of our work in EJOLTS is that, by accepting confusing epistemological positions, together and over time we may enable a beautiful swan to emerge from the ugly duckling we begin with.

A Response from Jackie

I share your experience with creating learning communities. In a large school board, we started with 5 teachers and 2 principals (headmasters). From that beginning with a group of 8, including myself, many learning communities were created both in my school district and several others. I called these communities “cultures-of-inquiry” (Delong, 2013) where practitioner-researchers could create their own living-theories using the Living Theory methodology (Whitehead, 1989). I believed strongly that teachers and other educators needed caring people around them to encourage and support them in their inquiries.

This belief extended to Masters programmes. I convinced the Dean of Brock University to create a cohort program where the group of 20 would stay together throughout the program and therein exist as a learning community in a culture-of-inquiry. The result of that supportive group was that almost all of the students finished the program and graduated. I was involved in the teaching and supervising of three of those cohort groups.

I feel that you and Mairie and the NEARi group have created the same kind of loving, caring, community in which individuals feel safe and loved.

On the subject of joining the EJOLTs board, I certainly felt unsure of the expectations for me and whether I could do a good job of helping others. I still wonder. With more experience, I think that I have become more effective in helping writers strengthen their research, in particular, in encouraging them to include data that provides evidence to support their claims to know. I feel a responsibility to EJOLTs to ensure that the articles meet a high standard of rigour and quality research and writing. I wonder if I am too demanding.

I do know, though, that at times I tire of responding after 6, 8, 10 iterations of an article. Part of my problem is that I can’t just read over spelling, grammar, and sentence structure errors and often offer several pages of corrections for the writer to consider (for which they may be less than thrilled).

I have found your responses to writers to be very thoughtful, kind and supportive. I have often noted that your perspective has provided the author a way to clarify her contribution and improve her writing. You are a valued member of the board and I look forward to your thoughtful responses and fresh perspective.

More Help Needed

Re: your question this morning:

Internal link (third box from the left on the toolbar)

Living standards of judgment

External link to a website (fourth box from the left on the toolbar)

Have a look at The Blueprint Alliance [8]

Look at these in edit mode and see how to include internal and external links in your text.

Read, practice and then delete this text!