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Fox, S. (1997) ‘From management education and development to the study of management learning’ in J. Burgoyne and M. Reynolds (eds) Management Learning: Integrating Perspectives in Theory and Practice. London, Sage.

McNamara, G. and O’Hara, J. (2000) ‘Action research for organisational change’ in J. McNiff, G. McNamara and D. Leonard (eds) Action Research in Ireland. Dorset, September Books.

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I would like today to focus on two issues. The first is to do with how the professional learning of teachers can contribute to a body of educational theory which has the values of care and responsibility as main ethical principles. The second is to do with how the idea of educational theory itself needs to be reconceptualised as a caring and responsible practice, a form of praxis, whose validity may be judged in terms of the values practitioners bring to their work. This view is quite different from a traditional view of theory as an abstract body of knowledge which may be applied to practice. Instead, it regards theory as a living, developmental process of making sense of what we do with the intent of improving personal and social living through education.

The process of self study as disciplined enquiry

Many of us have come a long way from the traditional theory–into–practice model. From the stories just recounted it is plain to see how teachers are contributing to a new body of scholarship as they tell stories of how they are creating their professional identities (Connelly and Clandinin, 1999). As teachers address and research the questions, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ and ‘How do I help you to learn?’, they are generating their own personal theories of practice which are embodied in their own selves. These living educational theories (Whitehead, 1989) are forming a new body of theory which not only exists in the dissertations, theses and other reports which they produce, but also exist in the people as they share their stories in community.

What is my justification for holding these views?

Action research is now high profile in Ireland. Some fifty validated masters dissertations exist to show how practitioners have asked the core question, ‘How do I improve my work?’. Another twenty are due to complete in coming months. Fifteen MPhil and PhD theses are in progress. All dissertations and theses are self studies and all contain validated evidence to support claims that personal learning has influenced the quality of educational experience for students, and have also impacted on wider institutional contexts. I consistently produce research reports to show this process (for example McNiff, 2000a and b; McNiff and Collins, 1994) and I encourage participants also to produce their research reports for wider dissemination (for example, Lillis, 2000). I include participants’ research stories, under their own copyrighted authorship, in my own writings (see for example my 1988, 2000b and 2001). Participants have made action research their own and have introduced it into their own settings (for example Collins, 1999; Condren, 2000), and have produced research reports to show how their personal learning is influencing wider education circles (Mol an Óige, 1999). Ideas about action research are highly visible in documents emanating from the Department of Education and Science (Government of Ireland, 1995, 1999, 2000), and in curriculum matters (Fitzgerald, 1998). As a network, we have created ourselves, like the Ontario College of Teachers, as a learning organisation, though unlike the OCT, we have no institutional base. The organisation is the people; pressure to modify existing education structures has been generated through the research-based evidence of people in community, and the outcomes of the influence are evident in contemporary policy documents and education trends, as noted above.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York, Free Press.

On this view, I believe all practitioners, in all walks of professional life, should produce descriptions and explanations of their work as personal theories of practice, to show how and why they have engaged in chosen practices, and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. These reports need not only be written: they can also be oral and ostensive. Like Eisner (1993) I believe we need to find new, creative ways of communicating our stories of learning so that others can learn from us according to their own learning strengths and traditions. I also believe it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to support the personal professional learning of teachers, by valuing new scholarship forms of experiential knowledge and personal self-study as much as traditional forms of scholarship. Universities need to move beyond elitist gatekeeping practices of deciding what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge is valid. Provided claims to knowledge are supported by rigorous research processes and the production of validated evidence, those claims should be taken seriously and perceived as contributing to bodies of knowledge which will support a view of research based professionalism. Universities need to reconceptualise themselves as caring contexts which encourage participative learning through the telling of educational stories.