I am hoping for your indulgence. I am aware that as busy people, you are probably making a commitment when you come to the Action Research meetings, sometimes long distances perhaps after work. I came to the group often this when I was a teacher at Oldfield School in Bath (beginning in 1994) and before. Exhilarating as these meetings were for me, they required a lot of effort, especially if I'd had a hard day at school, so I didn't always manage it. I hope you don't mind me taking precious time at the meeting to talk about some of the ideas I've been struggling with over the last few months. Jack has been filling me in on some of the issues the group is debating - which largely seem to be to do with the forms of logic each one of us is using to inform our lives. I hope that this short position-paper has something to say to you in your own enquiries on a value-level. I believe that discussions of our logics and values may be linked to an improvement in our practices.
The one thing I truly miss where I am now, is the kind of discussion I did so appreciate when I was living in Bath. So thank you all in advance.
At the outset of writing this paper I am aware of working within the logics of a dialectical tradition that embraces question and answer as a cornerstone of epistemological truth, and what it means to create my own living educational theory from asking questions of the kind, How can I improve my practice? (Laidlaw, 1996), based upon a living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989). I am also conscious of using propositional logic within my dialectical knowledge. So far, so good!
Recently, however, I have been struck by this phrase:
'For centuries, rationalistic thinkers have insisted on the abstraction of content from context' (Aburrow)
This neatly encapsulates a profound doubt I have always had that there are divisible realities we can package called 'The Ultimate Truth' and deliver to whichever destinations we choose. My reality isn't like that, and I suspect that your continuing presence at the meetings and the ways in which you account for your practices, means yours aren't either.
This short paper is personal and deals with an account of my own logic and how it influences my life. The ideas and processes of thinking, experience and conclusions are my own and I take responsibility for them.
First, why am I bothering to write this? Well, I want to express myself. At the moment I am drawing together threads of what binds my educational influences and through accounting for them, I seek to enhance their value. I have accounted for my values elsewhere (Laidlaw, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003a,b; and with others - Laidlaw et al, 2004) without being conscious of the fact that this incurs descriptions and explanations of my logic. Reaching this conclusion, although it may be obvious for you, is one that has taken me years of hard work, so don't knock it! Seriously, though, the slowness in reaching this conclusion is, it seems to me, typical of the logic I am developing and for which I am trying to account in this paper. As a school-student, my reports constantly said: Moira is a slow learner! There are, I believe, logical reasons for my 'slowness', which are not the focus of this paper, but render comprehensible, the way in which my ways of thinking/feeling are developed from, and influence, my actions. More anon.
Another reason for presenting this paper to you is the assumption that we are all concerned with clarifying the logic of our enquiries, and seeing how these logics influence our actions. I would be really interested to discuss how your logics and mine overlap, or are different.
In addition, it would be lovely for me to express my sense of personal logic without getting the response, as I so often do: ‘You what??' Rather like the notion:
Anyone who deviates from the norm is regarded as dysfunctional, even if they are perfectly content with their lot. (Aburrow)
That is not, I hasten to add, the response I have had from this group in the past, but it is a general one in my life.
In this paper, I am asserting the conclusions in action that Lumley (2004) calls:
'togetherness that is inductively and purely relatively achieved [being] greater than the calculated 'integrative' form of togetherness.'
I am a VSO volunteer in my third year of service in the foreign languages department of the Teachers College in Guyuan, which is in the poor northwest of China. I originally signed up for two years, am now in my first year of extension, and expect to continue in China until at least 2006. I was initially sent to Guyuan as an oral English teacher, negotiated after one term with my dean to run a course of Teaching Methodology and later started a programme of AR with my teacher-training colleagues in my spare time. On December 10th, 2003, Guyuan Teachers College opened 'China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching'. From next term I will not be teaching at all, but co-ordinating the activities of the AR centre with Dean Tian Fengjun. It is China's first and only AR centre. The background to how it was set up, and the processes of learning involved can be found at:
under: Action Research in China with Dr. Moira Laidlaw. The paper is called: How can I promote sustainability in Guyuan Teachers College and beyond? In brief, the paper outlines how, over the last two years, I have encouraged my colleagues to reflect on their teaching-methodology, to evaluate it and then to seek improvements through their practice. Furthermore, I have encouraged them to account for their educational processes and the results of some of their enquiries can be seen at the above address. Similar AR groups have also been set up with ten English teachers at a Middle School (secondary) in Haiyuan (about 100 km away from Guyuan) and with a similar number in Qinyang at the Longdong Institute (about five hours by car in the neighbouring province of Gansu).
So, what am I going to be doing for the next two years?
Jean's visit in December, 2003, was very helpful to all of us in clarifying the scope of the new AR centre. From mid-February, 2004, I will be co-ordinating the Action Research Centre full time. I anticipate helping my colleagues to build their own capacities to run the AR centre eventually by themselves, to consolidate the work already underway – my colleagues' enquiries, the work at Qingyang and Haiyuan – and build networks, both with educational establishments and through the internet. Jean has also helped me to see the necessity of writing, articles, books and newsletters. Li Peidong, Dean Tian, Zhao Xiaohong and I are separately and together involved in the writing of joint articles at the moment, which we are hoping will be published in national and international journals. These are at their early stages as yet. More in a future paper.
However, what I want to look at here, is the logic which is driving me to attempt the above. For, as Jean pointed out, what I am doing in China isn't really so much Action Research as changing lives, using Action Research as a method. So, let's have a look at the logic I am using.
I believe that my life has a purpose. It's for something. I chose education as the principle articulation of my life's focus a long time ago, or it chose me. The distinction doesn't matter but is symptomatic of the logic I use. I see myself as acting in the name of education and being in the loving service of humanity.  I never doubted that I would become an educator, but quite what I would do never seemed cut and dried to me because the further I got into a situation and the more I knew the people I was working with, so the situation evolved and I was catalyst and subject/object and negotiator in those situations. I feel, particularly since starting my action research in 1990, that I have occupied spaces in education and changed them as they have changed me in educational directions, ones which aimed to emancipate, to empower, to live values of human equality of opportunity and parity of esteem (see References-section for list of papers or access them on the web by clicking here).
This is partly due to circumstances and luck, and partly due to the remarkable people I have met in my life, many of them from this group, familiar to us all, whose names I will not mention here - otherwise someone has to go first and life isn't linear. And there are other people too. People like my first headteacher, Mr. Richards, a visionary educator who managed by walking around his school and knowing each student individually. Or Dean Tian now in Guyuan, whose management style is open and encouraging. Or further back than all that, my German teacher at school, Rene Gill who had a passion for equality and whose every breath it seemed to me, was drawn in on unfairness and exhaled justice. And now, I feel a certain familiar sense of not knowing quite what I am going to do in terms of actions, but feeling very secure in certain developmental values.
I do care passionately about education because I believe and have seen, that education changes lives for the better. Indeed I believe that is its purpose. Thus to be involved in education is to be involved in making a small part of the world a better place. Better? How? Let me explain.
Sometimes, in Guyuan, I see things which truly disturb me, which stay with me, which agitate me and won't let me rest. Most of those I have realised through the years, are to do with disempowerment. People denied food, warmth, respect, education because of their circumstances. Nothing they've done and nothing they are, just simply geography or exploitation by those who, it seems to me, should know better. That really gets to me. It angers me. Draws out all my sense of injustice. Makes me want to do something about it. My life in education has become an increasingly focused response and creative impulse whereby I, in consultation with others, can address some of the injustices of the world as I and others see them. What gives me a huge buzz is enabling others to empower themselves. That both satisfies the educator and the human being in me. It is the point of connection between the two.
I can't really describe in words the satisfaction I have when one of my young colleagues Tao Rui, for example sends me her report on her teaching, 'How can I improve my students' motivation so that they can improve their learning?' in which she is accounting to herself and others about what it is she has done in the classroom, how she has tried to improve her practice, but more significantly even than that, what it is she has learnt about herself and others through the process of Action Research. This knowledge she has amassed belongs to her. It cannot be taken away. She owns it and she is responsible for it. This, she has told me, is quite new for her. I am glad to see the quality of what she has done from a perspective of formal assessment, but my heart and spirit are profoundly moved by what such a process resulting in her report might mean for her future life and something of my own logic is satisfied at seeing kinship reflected in the world.
Because of the work we are doing there together, lives are changing. People's insights into their own lives and what they can do with them, are changing. (For comments from colleagues about this, see the reports by my colleagues Zhao Xiaohong, Ma Jianfu, Li Peidong, Cao Yong and Wang Shuqin and my students, Liang Ruixui, Ma Jie, and Cao Hongmei on the website at http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml ). Colleagues constantly mention to me that when they first started teaching and during the early parts of their careers, they wanted more in their teaching, more for their students, more of a sense of development and progression, but they were stymied by their cultural history, by a Chinese view of knowledge (see Laidlaw, 2001, 2002) and by their own sense of hopelessness in the changeless situation. Action Research, they say in their own ways, has liberated them, given them a sense of scope and possibility. Zhao Xiaohong, Li Peidong, Ma Jianfu, Tao Rui all tell me that reflection is becoming a part of their lives, that problem-solving, and tackling complex issues which may not be resolvable, are part and parcel of their days, and that this is satisfying to them in ways they marvel at. In some aspects of the logics through which they have grown into adulthood, deriving from Confucianism, which sees knowledge as hierarchical and subject to predetermined ends and means - finding delight in problems which have no simple solutions is remarked on as a novel experience. Creating formal educational enquiries through their own values is also a new experience to my colleagues. They tell me of the degree of pleasure as well that they and some of their students are gaining from the new methodologies evolving from their reflective practice.
Ma Jianfu, for example, says he feels galvanised by his desire to improve the quality of education in the countryside around Guyuan for Hui (Moslem) girls. His latest AR enquiry draft finishes with the question:
How can I find out more about the educational conditions in the countryside for Hui girls so that they can have greater access to schooling?
In November, 2003, we had an impromptu two-hour conversation one morning in the teachers' office, in which he outlined his sense of the future through his ‘AR perspectives' as he called them. His eyes shone as he told me about his imagined future. Full of rich promise. I was so taken with the way in which this young man was expressing his heartfelt values, freely and openly. To be able to do so strikes me as a human right.
So let's go back to my logic again. To be a part of what I perceive to be emancipatory is both a vocation and a privilege as it is in the service of a better world. What do I mean by that? Well, I perceive a better world as one in which people have more power to make decisions about things in their lives, which affect them profoundly. Better means not to be exploited, corrupted, used, abused, and the right to be seen as worthwhile. Better means having the freedom of choice and the means to develop both oneself and assist in the development of others. I am able to do both of those, and that incurs, I believe, an ontological responsibility based on the contradiction that if I can, why can't others? And hence, what am I going to do about it?
Fairness and love:
Before going on to look more closely at fairness, I want to say something about the use of the word 'love' in this paper and elsewhere in my research. I remember in the AR group over the years, having discussions about the use of the word 'love' in our enquiries. I have always been in favour of it in my own research. Even more so now, as I seek to articulate an integral part of my logic. The love I feel in my work in Guyuan arises entirely within the situation. My mind articulates the logic in ideas and words, my heart feels the love, although, of course, it is not distinctive as words might suggest. Which came first? Again, it's not a question of difference, it's a question of complimentarity.
Earlier I said that I see myself living in the name of education and in loving service of humanity. The distillation of the above in language is fairness and in the form of my sense-making in mind and thought is logic and in motivation and actions is love. You see, in my logic, from heart to mind or from mind to heart, I experience contradictions because it is not fair that because people are born in different countries, with different geographical, climatic, political and cultural backgrounds that they are denied certain privileges of being human. I perceive those as necessarily including staple requirements like food, or a home, or water, and on a spiritual level, access to the respect of others and being valued by others, and on a structural level, education. Many people are in a position in this world, it seems, of being able to take the above for granted. Being a volunteer is, for me, about answering questions of some of the unfairnesses I see, and putting into action those dynamics that enhance human rights. My actions are fuelled and augmented by love because it is love, which enables me to clarify. As James Finnegan (2000) so beautifully expressed in his thesis, it is love which enables justice to see rightly. And here I want to pause a while and have a look at what I am saying.
Just as I believe, with Jean and others, that the way to peace is peace itself, then the way to fairness is fairness itself. When Jean came to Guyuan she said it was like a post-nuclear holocaust landscape. I do agree. I say it less poetically: if the world had piles, Guyuan would be its bleeding epicentre! It is poor, the soil harsh, the climate unforgiving (top temperatures in the summer of 38 degrees, low temperature in the winter of minus 25, winds from Inner Mongolia and Siberia, and weather changes within hours). People scrape a living from the land, which yields little. The landscape is ugly and relentless. Money is scarce. Water is scarce. Education is scarce in the deep countryside, especially if you're a Moslem girl. This just isn't fair: these people are people just like you and me, (there is a sense in which they are you and I) yet they were born in rural China and we weren't (I am assuming). Certain odds are stacked against some people before they are even born. Yet despite the ugliness of the place (as I perceive it), when Jean and I approached Guyuan by car from Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia Province) at the beginning of her visit there in December 2003, I had a growing feeling of excitement. I felt a sense of peace because I was coming home. I love it, Guyuan, because I love the people, because I admire them so much, because the work I am doing there is so worthwhile and I get a buzz everyday knowing that. To see what I do as a sacrifice is to miss the point, because I get to do exciting work, with hard-working, determined, clever and totally motivated people in a bid to improve lives. I can't see that it gets any better than that. Not for me. Not given my background, experiences and values.
I want to enable greater fairness, and AR – and love - are ways of doing this. Jean was right when she said to me in Guyuan that AR is only a part of what I am doing there. I think so too. I believe I am living out my values more fully than I have ever lived them out before. That accounts for my sense of peace and fulfilment in my voluntary role. In my first term I hated being in Guyuan. I hated the material disadvantages, the extreme dryness which makes my legs bleed all the year round, the rank smell of open drains, the filthy restaurants and streets, people gobbing in the streets or indeed in those filthy restaurants. I hated the fact that I couldn't speak the language, or, more honestly, that the people weren't speaking English! I hated the customs, the culture that seemed simply sexist, racist and out of the ark. Yes, I was full of culture shock and various other unpleasant emotions. However, the logic I describe above overrode all that. I felt dreadful and persecuted and insecure and shocked at what I saw, but I still knew that what I was doing was inescapable – for me. Even when I hated the place for myself, for what I was going through, I was moved to tears at seeing beggar-children in the street and just knew that it was wrong, that no one should have to live like that. I was moved constantly by my students' and colleagues' delighted responses to kindness, to flexible methods in the classroom, by a simple gesture of fellow-feeling.
So this is where my logic has brought me: if it is wrong for people to live hand-to-mouth and have to sacrifice everything else to gain any form of education, or to do without it altogether, when I have financially been handed my education on a plate all my life, then it's always wrong, regardless of whether I am inconvenienced by living in Guyuan and doing without certain things, regardless of whether it 'suits' me or not. I recognise that I may not always feel like this, or draw the same conclusions I am drawing now, but at the moment, I perceive what I am doing as a logical process, the result of an increasingly self-aware life, one of, I hope, increasing 'inclusionality' (Rayner, 2003). I am also coming to see that what suits me is actually to live in accordance with my logic. To see myself not as discrete and separate, but part of the flow, as the flow is part of me.
My logic doesn't compromise much. It allows me neither to give up, nor to congratulate myself for what I am doing for it simply is what it is. There are great delights for me in Guyuan. Despite the material disadvantages, the squalor of the physical surroundings and the lack of financial security, I feel fulfilled by the relationships I am developing there, and the apparently increasing liberation of thought, feeling and actions of some of my colleagues and students. There is a sense in which I am at one with the situation I have both created and in which I have found myself. Being in Guyuan means I am in loving service of humanity. And that humanity isn't divided into me and them, it is us. I don't set myself outside that service. I also mean that my actions are in loving service of my own humanity. In trying to live this logic, I feel happier, more useful and more challenged than I have ever felt. I am gaining what I am giving. It is a dialectical process!
I'd like to share one incident with you, which for me symbolises both the compensation and the purpose of being in Guyuan. One Saturday afternoon I was coming back to my flat after shopping at the local supermarket. It was snowing, bitterly cold, with a wind-chill factor of about minus ten. Two little girls approached me. Wang Yu and Ma Ling. Wang Yu is eight and her friend is ten. They ran up to me, calling my name, which is really nice, because often I am called ‘laowai' (foreigner) which is, at best, impersonal, but certainly divides me from my fellow-human beings. They stood in front of me, and I had to stop, not that I minded. They nudged each other and then started up a rendition of ‘row row row your boat gently up the stream…' I was absolutely transfixed by such ineffible sweetness and felt a surge of love for them, for Guyuan, and a sense of gratitude at being able to work and live in the way I have chosen. Those children, every child, deserves, by dint of being human, the best chance in life. It's very simple really. Then, they giggled at each other, looked at me with grins and dimples, and ran away.
My logic led me to Guyuan, keeps me there, and continues to articulate my educational influence and direction. Long may it continue!
Aburrow, Y., (2003), Detachment, conflict, and the rationalistic
abstraction of the 'individual self ' (Yvonne), Retrieved 1 February
Retrieved 1 February 2004 from
Finnegan, J., (2002), How do I create my own educational theory in my educative relations as an action researcher and as a teacher?' Ph.D. thesis, University of Bath. Department of Education, Bath. http://www.actionresearch.net/fin.shtml
Laidlaw, M., (1994), 'The democratic potential of dialogical focus in an Action Research enquiry, in 'Action Research: an International Journal', vol.2, no.3, pp 221 - 242.
Laidlaw, M., (1996), 'How can I create my own living educational theory whilst accounting to you for my own educational development?' Ph.D. thesis at: www.actionresearch.net/moira2.shtml
Laidlaw, M., (1997), 'In Loco Parentis: a matter of fairness and love.' See above for address.
Laidlaw, M., (1998), 'Accounting for an improvement in the quality of my provision for some Equal Opportunities issues within my English teaching, 1997-8'.
Laidlaw, M., (2000), 'How can I continue to improve the quality of my provision of particular Equal Opportunities values in my teaching of English to a Year Eight group? '.
Laidlaw, M., (2001a) 'In the last months of my employment at Oldfield School, how can I help 8X to enhance their sense of community, as I assist them in improving the quality of their learning about English? by Dr. Moira Laidlaw Draft,'.
Laidlaw, M., (2001b) 'What has the Holocaust got to do with Education anyway?' Accounting for my value of 'responsibility' as a developmental standard of judgement in the process of helping to improve the quality of my educational influence with students over thirteen years
Laidlaw, M., (2002), 'How can I improve my teaching of methodology at Guyuan Teachers College?'
Laidlaw, M., (2003), 'How can I promote sustainable development at Guyuan Teachers College and beyond?' 2 papers.
Laidlaw, M. et al (2004), (draft), 'A Handbook of Communicative Methodology for the New Curriculum', China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan, 756000, Ningxia Province, P.R. China.
Lumley, T., (2004), Writings. E-mail correspondence 29 January, 2004.
Rayner. A., and Aburrow, Y., (2003) Feeling beyond the logic of conflict', paper at:
 Voluntary Services Overseas. VSO is a 45 year-old multi-national charity organisation that sends people to different developing countries in order to 'share skills and change lives'. In China the volunteers are primarily connected to further education institutions.
 Sustainable development is one of the key aims of VSO. By this is meant the ability for indigenous peoples to build their own capacities without recourse to voluntary aid. Volunteers are expected to facilitate this process by inaugurating self-reflective processes with colleagues so that they can take on necessary management functions by themselves.
 And yes, Jack, I am well aware that had I owned a digital camera, I would have been able to show something more valuable about his excitement than through my reported words like we did in the video-clip with Haley in year 8 at http://www.actionresearch.net/moira/mlyr8stick.mov ! I'll try harder next term! Note for the reader – only try to download this clip with fast transfer speeds. It is over 20 Mb.
 There have been discussions in this group about the use of the word 'love' in enquiries. I stick to this word because it is the right word for me. In the group we became, to my mind, stymied by a what is sometimes publicly perceived as the feeling operating at the level of sensation, and self-interest. I like the word love and don't want to bow to sensationalist 'Sun'-reading opinion. Eleanor Lohr is focusing on Love in Organisations in her doctoral enquiry. You can access Eleanor's ideas on Divine Love and Organisation at http://www.actionresearch.net//arsup/elchap5.htm
 I am beginning to understand something more from Jack's research into the way in which the visual carries more of the meanings we want to communicate from our lived experiences. There isn't a dichotomy of thinking and feeling in me, clear-cut and distinct, so much as there is a collaboration which finds different kinds of expression in the world and within me - as action, as hypothesis, as epistemology, as love. I name them as distinctive in order to communicate in words. I experience them differently as interrelated and interdependent.
 This idea is too large and complex for me to develop here, but suffice it to say, I take this meaning from the Talmud: 'He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.' That we are all one. That our distinctions as separate human beings are based on specious premises that break down at the value and experience-levels, when in fact, the world (when I am what I would call most sane) appears to me a single organism of infinite possibilities of complexity and simplicity all at the same time. And I am a part of it. And it is a part of me. In other words, unfairnesses to children in China is unfairness to me and to all peoples.