'Developing Educational Methodologies through a Living Theory Approach to Action Research'.

Inaugural Lecture of 'China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching',[1]

for colleagues at the Longdong Institute, Gansu Province,

by Dr. Moira Laidlaw,

DRAFT 3rd MARCH 2004


I am very happy to be here at the kind invitation of Dean Xi Xingfa and his colleagues. I would like to say that this is one of my favourite activities – meeting new people and old friends together, as I believe that we are always much stronger together than we are apart. I see this occasion as an opportunity to share ideas and to strengthen ties in the name of a better education for all our children. I would also like at this point to thank Dean Tian Fengjun from Guyuan Teachers College, together with our President, for giving me permission to come to the Longdong Institute this week. Thanks are also due to VSO, Voluntary Services Overseas, without whose support, I would not be in China at all, and to whom I and others owe a lot in terms of support, encouragement and resources.


The aim of this lecture is to draw out the links between Teaching Methodology and the Living Theory approach to Action Research. After I have finished talking, I do hope you will ask me questions. I think dialogue is a really good way to develop ideas. I would be interested in hearing what you have to say.


Let's begin, then. I am assuming that as educators, we all have something in common. We are all trying to improve something. Being a teacher, or an educational administrator suggests the building of particular human values – care for the future, concern for learning, the creation of a better society. I believe that we can all benefit from exploring these values and together learning how to put them into better effect in our colleges and schools.


So, first, let's look at what I am meaning by 'Teaching Methodology'. I see 'teaching methodology' as the science and art of teaching. I believe that the methods we use in the classroom should be designed to be educational. I am assuming that education has a single aim: to improve the quality of learning, and that education constitutes those activities designed to promote the values of individuals and society to live together harmoniously and for the common good. I take great inspiration from Lao-zi, who said:



In particular, he wrote:

shan zhi yi wei qi, 
dang qi wu, 
you qi zhi yong. 
shan zhi yi wei yong


zao hu you yi wei shi, 
dang qi wu, 
you shi zhi yong. 


I hope you can forgive my Chinese. I am grateful to colleagues Ma Jianfu and Ma Xiaoxia at Guyuan Teachers College for their help in my pronunciation and intonation.


I believe that education has something to do with promoting responsibility amongst individuals and groups and that it should enable people to reach their potential as responsible and fulfilled citizens both of China and of the world at large.


So now to Action Research. Instead of giving you a history, which I know is traditional at this point, I would like to talk about how to do it instead. I hope you will forgive me for this approach. I realise that time is limited. I also respect that in China, you expect to be told more about the history and the development of the theory. For a general history, however, I would like to refer you to my colleague Li Peidong's talk at the November 2003 conference in Guyuan, in which he gave us a superb analysis. Other examples can be found in the literature in the footnotes to this paper, of which Dean Xi has a copy and which you can find at http://www.actionresearch.net.moira.shtml. Action Research is essentially a practical art, and thus, I wish in this limited time to concentrate on the specifics of practice. I hope my reasoning becomes clearer later on.


I will, however, give you some pointers now about the foundation of what a Living Theory approach to AR is. You'll notice that the title of this lecture includes the words: a 'Living Theory Approach to AR'. What does a Living Theory approach to AR mean? Let's have a quick look.


Most theories are used to structure practice. In other words, we look to a theory to mould our response to what we're doing. We look to a theory to tell us how to generalize our understanding. We look to a theory to show us the way! The histories of the world are laid thick with theories – theories about how to teach, about how to practice medicine, how to lead good lives, how to realise our potentials as human beings. We have always looked to theories to provide answers. But this world is changing, ladies and gentlemen. Its needs are changing. This is a developing China, in a developing world. We need something new to guide us through the complexities of our lives, something with which to guide particular practices to enable greater success.


With Living Theory approaches to AR, new ways are being found – in education, medicine, and other social professions.


Living Theory is just what it suggests. It is alive, not static like most theories; but rather as you and I are alive, it is constantly growing and changing and developing. In a Living Theory approach to research, nothing is certain from the outset, and thus tentatively, we find our way from hypothesis to reality and back again, whilst trying to improve what we're doing. I will be coming back to this later, but at the end of the lecture, if you feel like asking questions, please go ahead and I'll try to give a better explanation. The living theory approach shows us practice and theory bound up together, rather than separate. I'll be talking more about that later when I've given you some ideas about what kind of knowledge we're dealing with here.


You see, it was in the introduction of the 'I' (wo) into the research, that was a highly significant new departure in England in the 80s under the guidance of Jack Whitehead at the University of Bath, with whom I had the great fortune to study for my Ph.D.[2] Instead of looking from the outside in as we do in more traditional research, we are now looking from the inside in and out. We are responding to life as it is lived by ourselves and others, and this is another reason it is called a 'Living Theory' approach. It has this name because it is not like other theories, which come before practice, as I hinted before. It is a living theory, because it is constantly in a process of change as human beings and all creatures are in constant flux. In this approach to research, your theory comes from your practice, which feeds again into theory, which evolves into practice and so on. It is an ever-continuous loop of theory and practice, which we call praxis! Living theory is dynamic. It is responsive to outside and inside influence. It is both change-agent, and changing itself constantly. It promotes sustainable development (the aim of my organization, VSO, in China), which suits the developmental nature of human beings. It is also alive in the sense that it steps outside the control of the disciplines approaches to education. Instead of using the knowledge from the psychology, the history, the sociology or the philosophy to build knowledge (although it can use those disciplines too), it creates the knowledge from the enquiries into education itself as it is lived by individuals and groups!


So, how do we do a Living Theory approach to AR?

Much more detail about this way of working can be found at: http://www.actionresearch.net under 'AR in China with Dr. Moira Laidlaw', but put simply, first we consider our place of work. What's going on in it? What do we care about? Is there something troubling us? Something that isn't working the way we want it to? There might be many things, of course. There usually are. However, in AR, we pick just one thing that bothers us and work on that. We use what we call an Action Plan. We find a question, a specific question about what it is we want to research What would I like to improve? and then fill out the remaining four questions:


Why am I concerned about it?

How can I improve it?

Who can help me and how?

When will I know it has improved?


 You can read Dean Tian's action plan from October 2003 by clicking here.. When we've filled it in, we take it into our classroom, our office, our group, and start putting it into practice. We act in accordance with our desired outcomes (AP Q3), despite the fact that in actual fact, teaching and learning are messy activities and often not open to neat solutions. We then watch the effect of our imagined solutions (AP Q2). We collect data while we're doing it. And then finally, we write it up. We draw together all the strands and the parts of our enquiry, and write a report. My understanding is, that many of you in this room have already done this. You have completed your first AR cycle. Congratulations. There's no going back, now! Usually when someone has done one cycle, it's easier to think about the next. And AR becomes a way of life, rather than simply a method.


Let's look at that process again:

1)   Find a question about something you want to research: How can I improve….?

2)   Fill out your action plan according to qs 1-5!

3)   Take the completed plan into your workplace;

4)   Collect data about your chosen enquiry, wit particular reference to your Action Plan;

5)   Discuss your findings with colleagues;

6)   Write up your actions in a paper, with some conclusions about what you and the students have learnt. How has your methodology improved and what can you improve next time?


At this point, I want to consider some of what is going on at the moment in this part of China, and of which your work is a significant part. In Guyuan Teachers College something very important happened on 10th December, 2003. Dean Xi was there! China's first Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching was opened (Click here to see the pictures of the opening). This is the first of its kind in the world. It has largely been the result of concerted efforts by leaders, Dean Tian, myself, and colleagues to make our dreams a reality. Its aim is to improve the quality of teaching and learning for all. Work has already been completed by such colleagues as Dean Tian Fengjun[3], Li Peidong, Zhao Xiaohong, Tao Rui, Cao Yong, Ma Jianfu, Wang Shuqin, Liu Fengyun, Ling Yiwen, Wang Ying, and even teachers new to the profession like Ma Hong, Liu Hui, Liu Binyou and this academic year we are lucky to have He Lina, Zhang Lina, Li Jun and Yu Lili working with us[4]. Each one of these colleagues has already completed at least two action plans. Some have done many more. Some of you have also started your Action Research. This work has had an impact on the quality of educational life in the department and beyond. A colleague at the AR Centre, Tao Rui, has already had her research writings used in both Britain and Japan as an example of excellent AR report writing, for example. People are beginning to recognise the relationship between good research and good methodology. In other words, our AR can become a practical study of how to improve methodology. But it's more than just that. More later.


Let's have a look at some more AR characteristics, and for this information I am grateful to Professors Pamela Lomax and Jean McNiff, as well as to Dr. Jack Whitehead.[5] After I have considered this, I will look at who can do it? Then in the final section of this lecture, I will draw together the links between AR and Teaching Methodology.


First, then, the qualities of AR. It:

Š      focuses on learning;

Š      embodies good professional practice;

Š      can lead to personal and social improvement; [6]

Š      is responsive to social situations;

Š      demands high-order questioning;

Š      is intentionally political.


In addition,

Š      the focus is on change and the self is the locus (location) of change;

Š      practitioners take responsibility for their own actions;

Š      it emphasizes the values-base of practice.


All in all, AR, taken to some conclusions, is a new form of scholarship, of the kind called for by Donald Schon[7], an American educator/philosopher, hugely influential in theories of knowledge. So let's look at the list above again and see what it implies. (Go through each one, mentioning some local manifestations.)


It has huge implications for the future of education. And, as Kilpatrick[8] (1951) said: Educational theory is a form of dialogue that has implications for the future of humanity. If practitioners are making their own enquiries, taking responsibility, changing their own processes and those of others, and then submitting that to public scrutiny and validation, then the resulting research is going not only to change that local context, but have the potential to change a whole culture.


So, let's look at that culture, we're talking about. We are the culture! We are using the Living Theory approach. We are using the 'I' as a central aspect of the research. In traditional social and educational research, the 'I' may not be mentioned. 'I' is seen as a linguistic convenience, rather than a unique human being. If you include the 'I', then you have to include bias, subjectivity, a new value-system, new ways of judging quality as a part of the reality itself. Excluding the 'I' makes research less complex. Including it makes our work more difficult, but also, in my view and the views of some others[9], much more rewarding.


Some Action Researchers in Bath, U.K. and elsewhere, consider that life and reality are difficult to understand and that we cannot pretend the researcher is not part of the research itself. Even modern physics in the guise of quantum mechanics (wu li?!), recognises that the observer and the observed are very difficult to separate.


Under the more traditional kinds of research, we study something as an observer, rather than a participant in the action. With the living-theory approach, we are both observer and observed. Our students are both object and subject of the research. We don't have a single context to study, like a class, or a classroom, or a student. We have our workplace and our relationships within it to study. And then, and this is the big one, we have to improve something about the situation. Our work, our observations, our research, our study, must help students to learn. And this is because we are teachers and the aim of teaching is learning. And this is the link between AR and Teaching Methodology. So, if Teaching Methodology is the art and science of teaching, then this form of AR is the way in which we can research, improve and theorise about our Teaching Methodology. If we decide to do this work, then, in our capacities as cultural agents, we are changing the whole culture. As Jean McNiff said in her wonderful visit last December to Guyuan, we are not just changing practice, we are changing lives here!


O.K., so who can do this thing called 'Living Theory AR'?

Well, you can!.

Your presence here suggests to me that you are in education. Otherwise why would you be here? And you came here to learn something, which means that you agree with AR principles - that to do good work we are not only professional educators, but professional learners too! Anyone involved in a profession that requires them to try to improve what they are doing with people, can do 'Living Theory AR'. So, let's draw some conclusions about what this thing, 'Living Theory AR' is.


Living Educational Theory puts the 'I', the 'wo' at the centre of the research. It says that you and I and he and she are unique people in the world, and that what you and I and he and she want to research, and can know, are unique as well. It says that if we are careful and rigorous and open our classrooms and places of work to observations and criticism, if we use a systematic form of planning, examine the contradictory values we hold, and then write up what it is we and the students have learnt, then we are doing the 'living theory' approach to AR.


Why should we bother?

Aren't we busy enough? Don't we have enough to do? Yes of course. As teachers, educators and administrators, we are all busy. This form of AR actually helps us to organize our time better. It uses our own energy and enthusiasm in a positive way. It gives us a way of structuring our own research, knowledge and conclusions. Lao-zi again, said:



In particular, he said:

gu yi zhi zhi guo, 

guo zhi zei; 

bu yi zhi zhi guo 

guo zhi fu. 

The Living Theory approach takes this seriously. It says that we can learn something from experience. When we think we know, that is when we are trapped in the prisons of our own minds. When we are open to new ideas, however, that is when we can learn! What I find so remarkable is that Lao-zi knew this hundreds and hundreds of years ago and it has taken this long for the West to catch up!


Last November at the AR conference, Dean Xi said he had moved from the darkness into the light! This is because his mind is open to new ideas. Dean Tian, another extraordinary colleague at my college, is promoting this work with 28 colleagues. To do Living Theory AR you need not to have the answers but try to find the questions. If your questions are sincere, then you will begin to know wisdom. This seems to me a very traditionally Chinese philosophy. The Living Theory approach enables individuals and groups to take responsibility for their own learning and teaching.


AR is essentially rigorous and scientific in its systematization of processes. Because it is all these things, it has great potential. I believe, however, that it's all very well simply to improve our methodology. It's all very well if our students can learn more. But shouldn't we be doing more than simply improving our own little bit of the world? If we gain all this knowledge, shouldn't we share it? Shouldn't we let other people understand what our knowledge can do? Why not kill two birds with one stone? Why not improve our classrooms, and tell others about it too, so that they can improve what they're doing and then tell the world about it themselves?


And this is the highlight of this lecture: this truth! You are, some of you, already doing this great work. In your classrooms and places of work, through your meetings, your writing, your observations of others, your collection of data, through your commitment to your students' learning, you're already doing this. And it's even better than that. This year, we have perhaps one of the biggest educational innovations happening right next door and in which you can all play an important part. China's Experimental Centre for EAR in FLT at Guyuan Teachers College, constitutes an enormous vote of confidence in this way of working. No one can predict quite what will happen as a result of this inauguration, but one thing's for certain: learning will improve, professionalism will improve, and teaching methodologies will flourish.


Despite my fifteen years working in this Living Theory approach to AR, I can't predict quite what will happen here, because this Centre is unique in the world, and will be the result of a community working together, with all the dynamic properties of group-work and communicative methods! I can be sure, however, that it will promote better teaching methodologies within the classroom; it will offer a space for professionals to talk about their practice and share ideas of epistemology; it will offer its services as a Centre in China and elsewhere not only for foreign language teaching, but for all educators who want to find a professional way forward out of the darkness; it will act as a focal point for excellence in educational development. Already, Liu Zhong, Chief Education Officer and Vice-Governor of Ningxia Province has praised the work we are doing in an open letter (29th December, 2003) to myself and colleagues (in both Chinese and English):


The practice of Educational Action Research proposed and promoted by you and conducted by your colleagues with unremitting efforts in the past two years, has been a great success in the English Department of Guyuan Teachers College, symbolized by the founding in December of the first institution in the world specializing in English language educational action research. This work has greatly inspired the passion of the staff to teach and to research, thus promoting the professional quality of the teachers as well as the overall educational qualities of the department. Creativity is the soul of a nation. I believe the founding of this Centre and your future work will greatly upgrade the English teaching level in our region and even the whole country…


I quote this at such length, because I believe what he says is true about the potential of this work to influence the education of a country. You see, since 1989 I have facilitated so often in these processes of helping enquiries into improving methodology to grow and become strong like trees, proudly standing up in the wind and snow, in the rain and the storms of life, so I know Living Theory AR is one of the most powerful methodologies for good I have ever experienced. Helping in that process is like enabling life itself to grow.


In my experience and the experience of many others (see websites) Living Theory AR is an organic process, melded to our very spirits. I hope that this, too, is your experience of this kind of AR. Those of you who haven't experienced it yet, perhaps this lecture and the enthusiasm of your wonderful colleagues, might encourage you to try it a little.


I believe with others, that it enables us to release our own desires for the way life should be and to nurture the growth of our educational values. Again, I need Lao-zi to help me express this. If we are to do living theory approaches to AR, then we need to bear Lao-zi's words in mind:



In particular, he said:

zhi ren zhe zhi, 
zi zhi zhe ming. 
sheng ren zhe you li, 
zi sheng zhe qiang. 


Through the processes of AR we come to know ourselves, and the world around us, a little better. We come to know something of our own power for good in that world as human beings. We come to know something of our deepest values and our deepest abilities as well as learning something about the abilities and potential of others. Living Theory AR aims to gain control over our own understanding, NOT over the understanding of others. It encourages us as individuals and groups to come together to share our understandings. With enlightened understandings, there is little we cannot accomplish. It seems to me that in China in particular we have a marvellous opportunity to unite through this new Centre for AR, and through our joint efforts, make the world a better place.


In the next lecture, I hope to talk about ways of doing AR with Chinese characteristics! I hope you can attend then as well.


Thank you for your attention. I hope that now, you will feel free to ask any questions and I will do my best to answer them.





[1] I would like formally to thank my colleagues Dean Tian Fengjun and Li Peidong in the early draftings of this lecture. Without their insights and helpful advice, I would have missed many of the points, particularly those relating to theory and the organization of this paper.

[2] See Laidlaw, M., (1996), 'How can I create my own living educational theory, as I account to you for my educational development?' thesis at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[3] Tian Fengjun, (2003), 'Article in ****'. Xi'an.

[4] See http://www.actionresearch.net under AR in China with Dr. Moira Laidlaw.

[5] 'You and Your AR Project', 2003, Routledge/Falmer.

[6] McNiff, J., Whitehead, J., Laidlaw, M (1992), 'Action Research for a Good Social Order', Hyde Publications, Dorset, England.

[7] Donald Schon, (1995), 'Knowing in Action: the new scholarship requires a new epistemology', Change, November to December: 2734.

[8] Kilpatrick, W., (1951), 'Critical issues in current educational theory,' Educational Theory 1 (1).

[9] See http://www.jeanmcniff.com as well as http://www.actionresearch.net for conformation of this.