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  • 00:04

    [Jean McNiff Discusses Action Research][Why is research important?Why is action research important?]Why this research is important, well,and action research in particular?All kinds of research are important.

  • 00:25

    Action research is very important in the sensethat we're all consumers if research in one way or another,so we get bombarded with a lot of informationfrom all different angles.We need to know about that informationand make sure that it's authentic,that we know where it comes from, that we can actuallybelieve what we're told.

  • 00:51

    And that means bringing a critical perspective to thingsand actually interrogating what we're told through the mediaand through the culture.So that's one important element.Another important element is that we are alsoproducers of research, and that is so importantbecause we need to be opposed to interrogate,as I said before, what to be heard and contributeto public debates.

  • 01:20

    That needs to be done from a position of knowledge, whichinvolves research, and not from the positionof the ignorance, which is kind of knee jerk reaction.So we need to know what we are doing in the real world.Because as researchers, we are positioned as people who know.

  • 01:42

    People who work in higher educationhave got a special responsibility for thatas well, because they're seen as peoplewho ought to know about what they are doing.There are so many other aspects to it whichwe'll come back to as we go on.[How would you define action research,and how would you describe the value of learningabout action research to a student or early careerresearcher]What action research is and what's important to know aboutaction research, it's-- I'll tell you what it isn't firstof all.

  • 02:12

    So it's quite distinctive from conventional scientificand social scientific research.And we all know what that is.It's about trying to find an answers to questions,about testing hypotheses, accepting and refusing themand so on.Action research is real world research,so it's practice based.

  • 02:34

    It's located in the practices of practitioners.Now when we speak about practitioners,usually that's taken to mean anyone who is not an academic.The people who tend to write, and to gointo the public domain, tend to bepeople working in universities who call themselves academics.

  • 02:58

    And they tend to make a distinction between academicsand practitioners, so practitionersare assumed to be people who work in these places calledworkplaces.Well I don't see it like that, because I see universitiesas workplaces.I work in university.I am a person working there.

  • 03:20

    I am a practitioner.So I don't see any difference therebetween people who work in places called universitiesand people who work in places called factories, and shops,and hospitals, and so on.However, when you do action research, whoever you areand wherever you're located, you'reactually responsible for what you knowand communicating for what you know.

  • 03:46

    And given that research is about finding out things and comingto a new place in knowledge whereyou think you know now what you didn't know before,that's the outcome of doing research.If it's action research, it's researchin the action where you actually research your action in actionfor action.

  • 04:10

    So the purposes of the research are very important.Because the purpose of action researchis to contribute to greater understanding, greaterlearning, and for social benefit.So it's the whole idea of people taking controlof what they say, what they do, what they think,and generating their own theories of practicefrom within their experience.

  • 04:38

    [What first inspired you to start research in the fieldof action research?]I have to get quite historical about this,and go back to the 1980s.At the time, I was working as a deputy head teacher, or a viceprincipal, in a very large secondary comprehensive school.

  • 05:05

    And as a deputy head, my responsibilitywas to look after the welfare of the girls,and eventually look after the welfare of the boys as well.At the time, a new curriculum initiative was being launched,and this was called Personal and Social Education.

  • 05:27

    I'll refer to that as PSE, Personal Social Education.These days, it's changed this title also to include health.At the time, people didn't know what this was.Whether it was curriculum topic, if it was where should itgo on the curriculum?How should it be taught?Who should teach it, and so on.

  • 05:49

    People didn't have a clear idea around what PSE was at all.So because I was the welfare lady at the time,it was my responsibility to find out about what PSE was,and this is what I did.Part of that was to go on a course which was run by a mancalled Leslie Button.

  • 06:12

    He was a pioneer in the literatures at that time,not only for PSE, but also for action research.Because he said that the way we understand what we're doingis to investigate our practices in action.So that was my introduction to action research,and that was way back in the 1980s.

  • 06:39

    Because I did have the responsibilityfor learning about what action research was,learning about what PSE was, I thoughtI should do some further study.So I decided to do a doctorate, and looked aroundfor a university which would offer me supportin doing action research.

  • 07:02

    And then I conducted my doctoral studies.The interesting thing was, when Icame to write my thesis-- because I wrotea thesis, a full thesis, about this topiccalled Personal Social Education--and it was through the writing of the thesisthat the penny dropped suddenly the it wasn't actuallythat I was talking about a subject.

  • 07:27

    I was talking about me and my learning,and my learning with the children.And that was a big revelation.So the upshot of that was that I wrote a second thesis whichwas about me, my learning, my learning with the children,how I learned from them, how we worked togethercollaboratively, how we created knowledge together and cameto a higher level of knowledge than we were before.

  • 07:58

    So my second thesis, which was the one that I submitted,that used the first thesis as datato show how my own thinking had changedfrom looking at things like Personal SocialEducation and action research.Looking at them as things, as in boxesand neat and tidy subjects which were thereto explore, to a whole new understandingthat it was about people, and people are always in processwith one another.

  • 08:32

    We're always dynamic.We're always moving.We're always learning.So that was the second thesis.And then of course, after learning that,there was no going back.If was just, everything was forward moving.[Which key thinkers have most inspired you,and who continues to inspire you?]There's so many, but I think some of the main nameswill come out.

  • 08:57

    But before I talk about the key thinkers, just to frame this,and as I was saying before, we allhave different views of the world.And over time, I know that my own views have changed.And I see the world differently these daysfrom the way I would've seen it when I was 21.

  • 09:22

    The vision of reality that attracts me Idraw from my vision of life itself, that it is emergent,it's developmental.The now, the present, holds the future already within itself,and also it's past.

  • 09:44

    So every moment is the beginning of the next.I think, when I was 21, I saw the moment as everythingthat the positive lead up to, whereas I don't see that now.It's like a seed, an acorn, has the oak tree already latentwithin itself.So that vision inspires everything I do.

  • 10:06

    And I love to read other thinkers,and I have learned from them.I hope people learn from me now about the importanceof communicating that sense that reality is notthat we come to a point where we know an answerand that's a full stop.It's actually the beginning, and the beginningis all little question marks, because we don'tknow what's going to happen.

  • 10:30

    And it's our responsibility to try to contribute to itand to shape it as we think good futures should be.The very idea of openness and creativity and emergenceis, for my understanding, good.And so key thinkers for my first degree, which was in German,I studied the German literature and Goethewas a very big influence in my thinkingthen, because he saw everything as about opening up.

  • 11:03

    And his studies into science and nature and color, for example,show that he had this vision of realitythat it is about new beginnings.Goethe it was in fact inspired by Spinoza,and Spinoza would have been one of the most important thingsbecause right through the history of ideas for that viewthis is all about opening and new beginnings.

  • 11:26

    And then my master's degree was in applied linguistics,and I came across the work of Noam Chomsky, whohas been a tremendous influence in my thinking.Because in terms of linguistics, he challenged the ideathat the study of linguistics shouldbe about finding definitive structures,finding definitive answers, everything coming to closure.

  • 11:51

    And he introduced this idea aroundthe generative transformational nature of linguistic inquiry.Well I've taken that idea and developed itto all fields of practice.I actually went to visit him on two occasions.He's a great friend and a great ally and support.

  • 12:14

    And yeah, it's wonderful, because it'sthat idea to put opening up, we'reopening up to new possibilities.The very form of theory that we generatedoes not have to be a kind of definitive theorywhere you know answers.It's a kind of dynamic, organic vision of theorywhere it's about finding new questions.

  • 12:38

    As soon as you come to the point we think you've got an answer,it actually generates all kinds of new questions.Other thinkers-- I mean, this is all very politicalwhen you bring it into the real worldand into educational research, because it challengesthe whole idea that there are final answers,and that you can come to a final answer.

  • 13:02

    And Isaiah Berlin was great on that in that he challenged--and Popper-- they challenged the idea that you know whatyou're doing in the moment.Because they say, well how can youknow what you know until you get the point where you know it,and you don't know what you don't know?So it's that adventure, that joy, of finding things out.

  • 13:25

    And Richard Feynman, he rooted his ideasin the idea of nature.That it is about growth, about learning.It's in the thinking of Dewey, whowas one of the key influences in the field of action research,although he never called himself an action researcher.The language wasn't available.And I don't think he would have done at the time, either.

  • 13:47

    That it is about growth, about learning that youcan't have definitive outcomes.The only outcome you can have of learningis more learning, and perhaps better learning.And better learning means that that in itselfbrings new learning.So it's about processes rather than products.

  • 14:08

    And for people who think analytically and liketo come to firm answers, and for policiesthat say you've got to have firm answers to what you're doing,this is really bad news.Because it's challenging that whole conceptthat you come to a point where you applya theory to your practice.

  • 14:30

    And you come to a point where you say, no, I needto understand what I'm doing.I can bring in those propositional theories,I can learn from them, but I haveto internalize them and make my own,and then find my own way of doing things,and trust in my own personal knowledgethat I'll do it right.

  • 14:51

    And if it doesn't come right the first time,it's like this videotape.If it doesn't come right the first time, you stop, you edit,and you go forward into a better direction.And that, for me, is one of the choiceof doing action research.It's not about closure.It's about opening up to new possibilities.[What recent piece of research has had an impact on you,and why?]The piece of research-- well, there are so many.

  • 15:20

    I think every piece of research I do or I'minvolved in is so important.The Cambodian work, that I'm speaking about, for example.This is quite recent for me.I'm very fortunate to work with a group of peoplewho are from North Norway, and they have formed their own NGO.

  • 15:40

    They're working in places with a high incidence of landmines,which means a high incidence of landmine injuries,a lot of lost limbs and lost lives.And the people that I work with are medics, and nurses,health professionals.

  • 16:01

    And they invited me to work with them.I have been working with them for three yearson a part-time basis.But this is something new, because theyhave been working for years in areasoff high landmine infestation, where unnecessary lives--lives have been lost unnecessarily,and huge incidents off amputations.

  • 16:28

    They have gone to places like Laos, and Iraq,and Cambodia-- and that's where I'm working with them now--and they bring their expertise.This is completely voluntary.There is funding for it, but they didn't get paid.And they go to these places, where theywork with the local people.

  • 16:52

    They help the local people to use their local knowledgeto help themselves.What's lovely about it is that these people with veryhigh medical and nursing knowledgebring their knowledge, they share it with the local people,and together, again, they come to a new level of knowledgeand understanding about how they cancope with these difficulties.

  • 17:17

    The area where they're working is near the Thai board.And in that particular area, there's something like 20%,of men particularly, who have lost legs,lost limbs, or have had amputations.So it's very high incidence.But also what's happens there is that they all work together,both the medical teams and local people,and they have-- they do for themselves--they have found ways to create prosthetics, for example,out of drain pipes and out of the spent shellsthat they actually dig up out of the ground.

  • 17:57

    So they're not reliant on other NGOs to give aid.They actually learn themselves howto cope with their own difficulties.In all the time that I have worked in Cambodia now,I have never had anybody complain, on us,or say poor me.

  • 18:17

    They don't feel sorry for themselves.They get on.They're lucky to be alive.They're lucky to be peaceful.That's another aspect that this particular projecthas brought about is this it is very much about post conflictsocieties.We work with people who, just a few years back, were enemies.

  • 18:40

    They were fighting on opposite sides.They were killing one another.And now they're working together.And this, although it's always there,they move into the new future where they say,this is our country.This is our lives, and it's up to us to make them better.It's the most amazing work.And my job there is to support the medical peoplein helping them to disseminate the work that theyhave been doing.

  • 19:09

    They have written it up for the scientific journalsand for the medical journals.As yet, they have no trick not foreducational and the sociological aspects of it,and that's what we're working on now.It's quite astonishing.[What do you see as the key strength of action research?]One of the key strengths, that it's-- it puts researchinto the hands of the individual practitioner,and into groups of individual practitioners workingcollaboratively who want to find ways of improving what they aredoing within a particular social context,and thereby trying to influence the social context thatthey're waking in.

  • 19:59

    The strength, in that sense, is that people feel in controlof what they're doing.They don't have to go outside to find themselvesto their situations.These are not necessarily problems.These are every date dilemmas or questionsabout where do we go next with this?

  • 20:19

    These are developmental questions.It's not that something's got to be bad in order to get better.Everything that we do, we are constantlytrying to get better.The Olympic champions are constantlytrying to get better.So you don't have to be bad to get better.Life is a process of trying to make it betterand develop it, move into new spaces.

  • 20:44

    This is one of the great strengths of action research,I think, is that when people inquireinto up doing in the action, theycome to new understandings.But it's theirs.And when they work collaboratively,they really do have an amazing power.Hannah Arendt talks about concepts of power.

  • 21:06

    And when she says that power is used to impose ideas,that's no longer power, that's violence.Power is people coming together, and working together,and finding new ways of doing things.And it's so important to communicatethat to young people especially, because these days we are tolddo what you're told.

  • 21:32

    Do what the policy documents say.Do what I tell you.Sit down.Be quiet.Do as you're told.And that's the way to stasis.That's destructive.Because when you get to stasis, there's no other way out.It implodes.It's very destructive.Whereas when you're in a culture,in a frame of mind, when you have an epistemology that says,look, everything is possible, what you need to dois find the best way.

  • 22:02

    But make sure that you take responsibilityfor what you're doing.And make sure that you check with other peoplethat this is right for them as well.Because it's not only you, it's other people.And we're never alone.Historically, we're never alone.Socially, we're never alone.

  • 22:22

    So we're always in company with others,and it's up to us, all of us, to findways of challenging autocracy, and bringingnew person-centered forms of inquiry,person-centered forms of listening,to create a more peaceful and productive world.

  • 22:42

    [What role do values and virtues play in research?How has your research been influenced by valueand virtue?]This concept of values and virtues is an interesting one.Action research itself is acknowledged to bevalues laden.Conventional research is allegedlysupposed to be values free, values neutral, whichis nonsense, because that research is alwaysdone by people.

  • 23:15

    So when a researcher goes into the laboratoryto do scientific research, that researcherdoes not leave their values at the door.They bring their values with them.So in a sense, all research is values laden.In action research, it's a strengththat we recognize values.

  • 23:39

    My understanding of the actual definitionof the concepts of value and virtue,if I subscribe to a particular value like freedom,then if I can live in a way that shows that I am living outthat value, for me, that would then become a virtue.

  • 24:01

    So I don't see virtues as particular attributes.Here we are in Chicago, and some years back, Iwas also in Hot Springs, and bothplaces where Al Capone lived.And when we were in Hot Springs, wewere passing the gangster museum.And so Dierdre Capone, who is the niece of Al Capone,she was in a shop-- then the gangster museum shop--and she was selling books called Uncle Al Capone.

  • 24:31

    So of course we got one, which was signed.And I learned a lot about Al Capone.And many-- for him-- and you couldsay, in a quite objective fashion,that he had very strong family values.And we would endorse strong family values.And he had a great understanding of social order,and he encouraged social order.

  • 24:58

    Now those values which would be shared by archbishops,so they're all sort of good values, socially acceptedvalues.What we might disagree with was his methodsof enforcing those values.But to Al Capone, the concept of the value of family values,these would be virtues for him, whichI guess we would all share.

  • 25:25

    So what I'm saying is that we can have different values,and they're relative to ourselves.I struggle with that concept of relativity, because thereare certain practices in life like cruelty, wantoncruelty and so on, that I don't thinkcan be endorsed by any kind of human standard.

  • 25:46

    So this is my own inquiry, ongoing,is to how do I understand these issues.But the idea of values is so important for action research,because when you take an action in the world,you need to give thought to the kind of actionthat you are taking, and why you are going to take that.

  • 26:12

    So values give you the reasons for your actions.Methodologically, they also come to standas your criteria, how you judge the quality few actions.That's why I like the work in Cambodia, South Africa,at the places I've worked, because theyare such strong values around justice, the right of humansto enjoy a peaceful life.

  • 26:43

    And how do we, as researchers, how do we thenjudge the quality of what we're doing?How do we justify the idea that we work with othersand try to change social situations?So that's where we ground our understandings in values.[What does being an ethical researcher mean to you?Why are ethics important?]Ethics, of course, is very importantbecause it's linked so strongly with the idea of values.

  • 27:16

    And to me, the idea of just holding your knowledge lightlyand testing it is ethical practice.I know we all have these guidelines,and they're so many words on paper in many casesbecause ethics can be contradictory.

  • 27:40

    One ethical position can contradictanother ethical position.In a few months time, I'm doing a paper on,when is ethics unethical?And I think that's the case, ethical behavior can sometimescome through is unethical.Again, you've got to ground yourself somewhere.

  • 28:01

    You've got to have a solid ground on where youstand from where you proceed.And to me, the idea of ethical behaviorhas always got to be with keeping your mind open,being open to other possibilities.And that means mentally adopting a mindset where you'reopen to other ideas, and you don't close down,and you check out-- before you make a decision--to your own behavior, that you look at it with responsibilityand with discernment, and you say,is this right, what I'm doing?

  • 28:42

    Of course, you might be wrong, so that, again,is where you need constantly to check with other peopleand go through all of these multiple tests.It's a very hard way of living.But to me, it's the only way in whichyou can live a life of which-- that you can stand over,that you can look at.

  • 29:04

    And you say, I might not have been right all the time,but I did my best to try to be right in the broadestpossible sense.We all have to be accountable for what we do.And it's looking at the fact that we alltell different stories.And there is no one over arching story that says,that's the right story.

  • 29:29

    Because for every story, there's another story,and you've got no recourse to a grand narrative that saysthis is the right way to be.It's trial and error.It's doing the best you can with what you have got,and hoping that you're right at some point.[What advice would you give a student embarking on an actionresearch project for the first time?]What I have said before is do not listen to peoplewho tell you you can't do it.

  • 29:59

    Do not listen to people to tell youthat action research is just about professional development.It is not just about becoming a betterteacher, or nurse, or mechanic, or engineering.It is about creating new knowledgeand generating theory.

  • 30:19

    It is about becoming a researcherand that means becoming a theorist.Do not listen to people who tell you cannot generate theory,because you can, and you should, and it's not difficult.Because in broad translation, a theory means an explanation.

  • 30:39

    And everybody can and should explain what they're doing.And as any kind of professional, youshould be able to give reasons and purposesfor what you're doing.You should be able to say, I am good at my job.If you're not able to say, I am good at my job,you shouldn't be doing the job.

  • 31:03

    But to be able to say, I'm good at my job,you need, then, to explain what you're doingand to give reasons and purposes, and that is theory.So that's what I would say to new researchers.[What new research directions do you find most exciting?Where do you like to take your own research?]My writings, I suppose, are about action research.

  • 31:29

    But I've actually moved on from action research in the sensethat I'm more interested in the philosophical underpinnings,the idea of ethics and so on.And I am writing about this.So I actually write for two different fields.One is, I write the textbooks and I'm constantlyupdating the textbooks, so that's the action research.

  • 31:50

    And you tend to get type cast, and so on I'mseen as about action research.But articles and other kinds of writingsare about others aspects around community development,international development, ethical perspectives,the more philosophical aspects of what action research standsfor.

  • 32:12

    And that's where I hope to continue,please God, into the future.


Professor Jean McNiff talks about action research, the responsibility innate to knowledge, and the emerging nature of reality. She highlights key thinkers in the area of emergence and growth. She also discusses issues of empowerment, regarding both students and researched communities.

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Action research

A type of applied research designed to find the most effective way to bring about a desired social change or to solve a practical problem, usually in collaboration with those being researched.
Action research
Jean McNiff Discusses Action Research

Professor Jean McNiff talks about action research, the responsibility innate to knowledge, and the emerging nature of reality. She highlights key thinkers in the area of emergence and growth. She also discusses issues of empowerment, regarding both students and researched communities.

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