Responding to the question: What are some appropriate standards of judgement in our educational research?


JeKan, thanks for the question. I believe it's a fundamentally important one for an educator to be asking. I want to respond to what you and Jack have written because the question makes me ask myself, what is appropriate in the development of educational standards of judgement for the educational processes I am involved in. Here are some ideas. I hope they stimulate some debate.


First, I want to present my ideas from my position of being a Lifelong Professor of Educational Research[1] at Ningxia Teachers University in China, because I feel that the formulation of what is 'educational' in the processes of developing standards of judgement in relation to education, is crucial.


Secondly, I am writing with an understanding of Lyotard's (1984) idea that:


"The [postmodern] artist and the writer, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done," (p.81),

which I take to be a preferment of process over outcome.

Thirdly, I am taking this opportunity to respond to the criteria offered by Furlough and Oancea (last retrieved on 8th October from indicators of quality in education by outlining how, in my view, a linguistic list, however rigorously arrived at, may not capture the qualities distinctly enough to be helpful in developing educational processes. If one of the aims of evaluation is improvement I am not sure how set criteria can fully allow for some of the processes qualifying as educational.

First, I hold education to be open-ended and multi-dimensional, constituting a social and personal response to the dialectical needs of social and personal development. As a lifelong professor of educational research, I see my task as twofold. In my professorial inaugural lecture (Laidlaw, 2006 – see I outlined that as a professor, I was responsible for professing something. Telling something. However, I also stressed my belief that I am also responsible (because my title contains the word 'educational') for the development of something for the good of society and individuals and groups within that society. I believe education distinguishes itself from training, for example, by the degree to which individuals and groups within the process are facilitated to reach potentials not necessarily initially conceived within the original framework, but which will, nevertheless, contribute to personal and/or social development. The important idea here, I think, is the necessity of education being a dynamic between at least two people. That education occurs when the people involved in the processes are engaged in learning something of value – for themselves and their society. The learner connects what is being learnt with their inner landscape in such a way that they are empowered by the knowledge and begin the process of being able to manage that empowerment. This it would follow, for me, to perceive as most valid, those educational standards of judgement, which are derived by the people engaged in the processes themselves. In 2004 I gave the inaugural lecture (Laidlaw, 2004) for China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching on standards of judgement in educational research and said this about the process of people themselves devising their own standards of judgement in education:

Let's stop a moment and consider this. People making their own standards of judgement about the work they are doing. How can this be? How can we do that and still produce work, which is recognised to be of value in the wider society? (p.8)

I believe this to be one of the greatest challenges facing education. Facing it, finding ways of trying to resolve what may be unresolvable can deepen the educational value of the processes. I believe education exists within a dialectic and series of paradoxes. On the one hand, education is often conducted through socially-accepted and endorsed institutions, with a particular set of desired social outcomes; the schooling system would be one such example. Those qualifying parameters, often written down on paper as performance indicators, or examination results, or job-appraisals, or, in England, League Tables, hold a unit together, to enable it to prescribe its future journey, and develop the language to describe it to interest groups and to control its development. These linguistic renderings of experience to document have tremendous power. Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) in Britain, or in China, the Provincial or State Evaluators are the arbiters of what qualifies a school as 'good', and their formulations are often rendered as written text against a set of markers designated as 'correct' by those in power. However, a tabulated list of 'qualities' in a list can look as if they describe something, but in reality, do not capture what it is like to be in a particular classroom, or be taught by a particular teacher, or comprehend the quality of what has been learnt to an individual student and so on. I believe lists can confer a belief in quality, without ever coming near to the qualities themselves as they are experienced, reflected on, understood and used by those in the processes of education under review, and which are, by their very nature, developmental.

I also think the listing of qualities under the headings of criteria, standards, judgements etc. that may give rise to a tick-list mentality, which deems everything to be reducible to preconceived ideas. The logical outcome of that, as I see it, could be that what cannot be similarly be measured, may, in time be deemed insignificant and thus be overlooked. Thus I like your idea, JeKan, of discernment, rather than standards, as this suggests a greater dynamic involvement with the quality of the processes.

A paradox here, though, is that working towards criteria for judgement is in my experience a very fruitful and educational process (Laidlaw, 1994, 1996) because the collaboration towards standards of judgement which hold both linguistic and inner, ontological meanings to those engaged in the process, opens the door to innovation, ownership of processes and values and the development of mutually-agreed qualities. The process itself is what I would term educational.

Let me give an example. The example I have chosen seems to me particularly relevant to your concern, JeKan, about racial privilege and hegemonies, which may be operating when someone from one culture is in a leadership position in another culture, regardless of whether this is consciously desired by the 'leader'. For the years between 2002 and 2006, Dean Tian Fengjun and I and our colleagues at China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching at Ningxia Teachers University have been specifically looking for what might constitute Action Research with Chinese characteristics (see Li and Laidlaw, 2006[2]; Tian and Laidlaw 2005; ed. Tian and Laidlaw, 2006). We don't yet know precisely what Chinese characteristics might be in our attempts to improve our practice as we understand better how to implement China's radical New Curriculum. This curriculum stands more traditional concepts of teaching and learning on their head by insisting on the facilitation of critical thinking skills, and the building of autonomous learning strategies. This is in distinct contrast to the old curricula, which demanded rote-learning and the regurgitation of processed material by students, and the application of 'model' methodologies by teachers and teacher-trainers. However, in the Centre we understand that the formulation of such a phenomenon as Chinese characteristics itself may offer us the framework by which we will empower learning, promote sustainability in learning and reduce the likelihood of hegemony in terms of the power-relations surrounding conceptual criteria of quality. An extract from our article which focuses on a conversation between the authors – myself and Li Peidong, an experienced lecturer at the AR Centre:

Moira Laidlaw: Instead of knowing the answers, I realized that I had to let go of certain set beliefs about process and outcome that I had come to China with. For this process of educational development to flourish, it had to flourish in its own image. There is something in this new idea that doesn't at all contradict an original value I hold, however, and that's about not exerting undue influence on the people around me and diminishing their power to make decisions about aspects of life, which directly concern them.

Li Peidong: So AR might develop here in new ways. This individually oriented form might change into more collaborative forms of AR. We might have, for example, people researching together in pairs: one an experienced teacher, and the other a novice. This mentoring might help us support a Chinese structure. Although the enquiries we are conducting here are useful, I do wonder sometimes about the emphasis on the individual. I think there are ways for us to work in which we create a new synthesis out of our understandings.

Moira Laidlaw: In developing Chinese characteristics in this process, we might render the process sustainable. It seems to work all round. We want educational improvements. We want durability. We want the process to fit. We want people to be motivated. We want something new, to make this AR Centre distinctive.

Li Peidong: And it will focus colleagues in working together to build something powerful for China. Yes, this new curriculum and the work we're doing on its implementation may be one facet of Chinese characteristics.

Moira Laidlaw: You might be right. But it seems to me that an action research with Chinese characteristics is a synergetic and creative response to the differences between us all. That in doing this, I am saying it is not about my insights. Only you can do this. I can't know what makes something Chinese and how that Chineseness can be harnessed educationally. It devolves my power in the situation. (p.343)


And later:


Li Peidong: ... We exist, you and I, as individuals and as members of a group within a changing society. Your personal predisposition is from we to I. Mine from I to we. It is a kind of yin-yang situation. Our living contradictions in some senses mirror the present contradictions within our educational system. The new curriculum seeks personal as well as social development, growth and potential. You want that too, I know that. I want that. Our AR with Chinese characteristics grasps the reality of the dialectic, knowing it can't point to both momentum and destination at the same time.

Moira Laidlaw: A bit like a quantum mechanical view of the universe...

Li Peidong: Or like Lao-zi's belief that we use bricks to build a house, but it is the space within that makes it liveable. We have to hold the two together as a unity, although they are opposites and can never meet. That's AR with Chinese characteristics.( p.344)


This expresses my (our) belief about the paradoxical nature of educational development, and by implication the paradoxical problem of inaugurating educational standards of judgement to augment the processes involved. To evaluate the processes in any form other than the original form is itself an act of re-construction of the experience itself as Eisner (1993) alludes to in his AERA presidential speech. He was concerned that such a 'reconstruction' may distort it. I believe he was right, and I would place the listing of standards of judgement as open to this distortion. It is this distortion that worries me.

If education is a dialectical process (Whitehead, 1993; McNiff, 1993), then its standards of judgement need to be dialectical. They need to point to what Li, in Li & Laidlaw (2006 above), expresses thus:

We have to hold the two together as a unity, although they are opposites and can never meet (op. cit.).

The two, it seems to me, are the process and the result of the process (if indeed they can be so divided), with the third, which is bigger than the sum of its parts. This seems to me, therefore, to require a different approach to the setting of standards, and why I am interested in the research being done currently at Bath University by Jack Whitehead in his insistence on multi-media forms of representation and with his work with Alan Rayner on inclusionality; or the work of Branko Bognar in Croatia, whose enquiry into how he might help to facilitate AR with colleagues working with school students infulenced a ten-year old student, Anica, in being able to account for her own educational processes using standards of judgement she had developed herself in the course of her research enquiry into how she might improve her values as a member of her own family. The multi-media forms of representation (see Whitehead 2006 : ), the organic and developmental nature of inclusionality (Rayner, 2005) and Branko Bognar's video footage and explanation of the young student, Anica's work, are examples of the kind of developmental standards of judgement, which might help us better to understand – and thus improve – our processes of education. The standards they are seeking and refining in process become the educational power of their work. (You can find more details about this work as well in Whitehead, 2006). See also Tian and Laidlaw's article at AR Expeditions in which we discuss this idea.

So, let's come back to the criteria proposed by Furlong and Oancea for applied and practice-based research quality, by asking how the criteria listed can be applied educationally, if this response to your question, JeKan, is a reasonable assertion of what education might be. If education is dynamic, multidimensional and developmental, if it is rooted in ontology and constructed formally and informally to improve something, then how can a flat measuring-stick be used to judge it? Let's look at the criteria in a bit more detail. Words like: 'plausibility' under 'Capacity Development and Value for People' mean what? I know what the semantic meanings are, but I don't understand the life-energy behind those descriptors in any way, which would enable me to use them as guidelines for quality. They are inert tools, not living tools. I own no part of them. They are not the summation of shared experiences. They are words on a page.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the people using these kinds of criteria are attempting to create a hegemony, but they are certainly working from within one. My understanding of a hegemony is that the rationality survives by a set of rules which become internalized and reified, and taken for granted as correct. Anyone challenging those rules can be subject to forms of intimidation and negative judgements. The assumption being made by the criteria above is that (written) criteria on their own are able to capture full meanings. This assumption affects not only processes, but I believe also stymies people's ability to work from within a dialectic between process and outcome, and working within this dialectic answers the question of finding valid criteria for individuals and society at the same time, as well as deepening the learning associated with the process. Our job as educators, surely, is to strip away linear parameters, and open our eyes to the potential clarities we might find, if we only seek together, the meanings in multidimensional realities and representations we want to create from our lives and productive work.


Bognar, B.,(2005), Video footage of accounting for levels of educational achievement at:

Eisner, E. (1993). Forms of understanding and the future of educational research. Educational Researcher, 22(7), 5-11.

Laidlaw, M., (2006), How Might We Improve the Educational Value of our Research-base at the New University in Guyuan? Researching Stories for the Social Good. Inaugural Professorial Lecture by Moira Laidlaw, Professor Inaugural Lecture at Ningxia Teachers University on 20th June. Retrieved 8 October 2006 from

Laidlaw, M., (2004), 'Developing some appropriate standards of judgement for our action research enquiries in China', a second lecture at the Longdong Institute at:

Laidlaw, M., (1996), 'How can I create my own living educational theory as I account for my educational developmnt ?' Ph.D. thesis, University of Bath. Retrieved 8 October 2006 from

Laidlaw, M., (1994), 'The purpose of dialogical focus in an educational action research enquiry,' Action Research, Vol 2., no. 1, pp 224 – 242.

Li, P., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), Collaborative enquiry, action research, and curriculum development in rural China: How can we facilitate a process of educational change? Volume 4(3): 333–350 SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks CA, New Delhi

Lyotard, J.F. et al (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature). Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.

McNiff, J., (1993), 'Teaching as Learning', Routledge Publications, London.

Tian, F., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'Action Research and the New Curriculum: case studies and reports in the teaching of English', Shan'xi Tourism Publication House, Xi'an.

Tian, F., & Laidlaw, M., (2005), 'How can we enhance educational and English-Language provision at our Action Research Centre and beyond?' AR Expeditions, at:

Rayner, A., (2005), 'Essays and Talks on Inclusionality', at Retrieved 8th October 2006.

Whitehead, J., (2006), 'Living Inclusional Values in Educational Standards of practice and judgement', Keynote Address for the Act, Reflect, Revise III Conference, Brantford, Ontario.  

Whitehead, J., 1993), 'The Growth of Educational Knowledge', Hyde Publications, Dorset, U.K. Retrieved 8 October 2006 from









[1] The position was originally mooted as 'Lifelong Professor', but I asked the authorities to change it as  the inclusion of 'of educational research' was more suited, I believed, to the work I wanted to do in Guyuan, Ningxia Province.