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How might I enhance my practice as co-convener of NEARI? (Draft)

Background

My area of practice is as co-convener of the NEARI network and as contributor to the EARI group. NEARI is the Network of Educational Action Research in Ireland. It is a network of educators from all spheres of education who come together as they adopt an action researcherly disposition (see Sullivan et al. 2016) in terms of reflecting on their practice, sharing the stories of their learning and engaging in critical dialogue about their ideas. The network is not located in any one institution and is non-funded and it aims towards developing action research scholarship and practice. The network convenes about three times a year at the invitation of the various education institutions in Ireland and we are delighted when the meeting room and refreshments are provided by our host institution. Conversations frequently continue online at [www.eari.ie] and on Twitter @InfoNeari.

NEARI supports people to reflect critically on their work. It encourages people to look to the educational values that underpin their practice and to work towards living these values in their practice so as to enhance it. It is nearly three years old and was convened by colleagues involved in the area of living theory: Pip Bruce Ferguson, Caitriona McDonagh, Mary Roche and Bernie Sullivan as well as myself.


Values

As an educator and co-convener of NEARI, I hold values of social justice, inclusion and democracy, dialogue, communication and knowledge creation and collaboration. These values incorporate the core educational values of the Irish Teaching Council i.e. care, respect, integrity and trust. As someone who has engaged with self-study action research and living educational theory for nearly twenty years now, I have experienced, at first hand those tentative first steps of questioning the assumptions that underpin my practice as described by Brookfield (2017) as I attempt to break out of the ‘comfortable prisons of existing knowledge and established ways of doing things’ (McNiff 2008, p. iii).

I am also aware of the difficulties that surround the process of exploring and unearthing the values that inform my life as a practitioner (Glenn 2006) as well as examining their enactment in my practice (Whitehead 1989). However, despite the messiness (Mellor 2015) of the process, I, along with my NEARI co-conveners, have found engaging in self-study action research and living theory to be hugely empowering (see McDonagh et al. 2012). McDonagh and Sullivan (2017, p.30) outline how ‘the idea that teachers can be implementers of change in their classroom-practice is a powerful one, and it can lead teachers to a realisation of the immense value of the work that they do in their classrooms on a daily basis’. This is quite a wonderous feat in what can currently be described as a highly prescriptive environment.


I am convinced of the power of living theory to make teachers feel empowered in terms of decision-making, professional growth, status, self-efficacy, autonomy and impact, as outlined by Short and Rinehart (1992). Like Whitehead (2013, p.14), I chose ‘to extend the influence of living-educational-theories because I see them carrying hope for the future of humanity. I also want to continue to evolve my own living-educational-theory as I continue with my inquiry, “How do I improve what I am doing?”’ My colleagues and I chose to build on our doctoral studies in self-study action research and living theory by exercising our educational influence in the learning of others (McNiff 2008) by convening groups of educators with whom we could share our learning. Together we decided to contribute the story of our learning to other who might be interested in it, and to establish learning communities for people with an interest in living theory and self-study action research (see Glenn et al. 2017). We hope that they might begin to work together along with us as we explore living theory together.


Living Contradiction

While I work towards establishing and extending NEARI with my colleagues, it is important for me to check that I am living in the direction of my values and that I can offer descriptions and explanations for and of my emergent theory. Whitehead (2013 p. 18) reminds us of the ideas that are kernel to the concept of experiencing oneself as a living contradiction. He says we need to place ‘“I” as a living contradiction in enquiries of the kind, “How do I improve what I am doing? They include the clarification and communication of meanings of energy-flowing values through action/reflection cycles, as explanatory principles in explanations of educational influence in learning’. Therefore I must ask myself the following questions: How can I as co-convener of NEARI know that I am doing the right thing? Kemmis (p. 418 2010) states ‘What constitutes good conduct in any particular case is a matter of judgement …[and] is frequently contested.’ I, along with my NEARI co-conveners make the assumption that living theory is a ‘good’. We make this assumption because it has been powerful and positive in our professional lives. How might I explore my practice so that I can see that I am working with integrity? How might I negotiate my own ethical and moral ways to behave in order to improve my practice, as outlined by Cunningham and Laidlaw (2017)? I make the assumption that engaging in reflective practice and critical reflection can enhance practice. How do I know that it does? Moon (1999: 57) cites Copeland, Birmimgham and Lewis to ask the question: “Do students of highly reflective teachers learn more or better or even differently?”’ I must also ask if I, as a proponent and practitioner of reflective practice, must question if critical reflection does enhance practice. How can create a safe environment so that participants can exchange both newly-formed and more established ideas? How might I include all voices in the network so that everyone feels that their voice is equally valued?


To pause

I ask myself these questions as I work towards living in the direction of the values I hold. This is a work in progress and as I strive to conclude my input here, I realise that I can only but pause for now as I have no conclusions to offer, yet. I pause and I wonder as I hold my work up to the scrutiny of my values, if I am, in fact, enhancing my practice as a co-convener of a learning network and enriching the learning lives of others?

References

Cunningham B. and Laidlaw, M., “How can we live out our values more fully in our practice by an explicit exploration of our living contradictions?”, Educational Journal of Living Theories, vol. 10, pp. 1-25, 2017

Kemmis, S. (2010) What is to be done? The place of action research, Educational Action Research, Vol 18, (4) pp. 417-427

McDonagh C and Sullivan, B., “Living Research: How do we realise our capacity to create knowledge as we live towards our professional values in our practice?”, (2017) Educational Journal of Living Theories, vol. 10, pp. 26-42,

Mellor, N. (2015) The Untidy Realities of Research, PowerPoint: Slide 76. Available at https://sites.google. com/site/nigelsbitsandbobs/Home/messy-method--the-secrets-of-the-doctorate. Accessed 19 February 2018

McNiff J, (2008) “Foreword”, Educational Journal of Living Theories, vol. 1, p. i-iv.

Short, P.M., (1994) Defining teacher empowerment. Education, 114 (4), 488–492.

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a Living Educational Theory from Questions of the Kind, “How Do I Improve My Practice?”’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 19(1), 137–53.

Whitehead J., (2013) “Evolving a living-educational-theory within the living boundaries of cultures-of-inquiry”, Educational Journal of Living Theories, vol. 6, pp. 12-24