Learning with and from pupils: the transformative potentials of self-study research


Caitríona McDonagh


Draft paper for the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting interactive symposium

The transformative potentials of individuals’ collaborative self-studies for sustainable global educational networks of communication


San Diego, 16th April 2004


I am an elementary school teacher, working in Dublin, Ireland. In undertaking my research I am aiming to help my pupils who have learning difficulties, and to help them maximise their own potentials for learning. I am presenting this paper as a report on work in progress. I would like to invite your critical response to my attempt to generate valid educational theory from within my classroom practice. In presenting this paper I would like you to respond to these questions: Would you agree that I am generating valid educational theory? Why do you agree? What standards of judgement are you using in assessing the potential significance of my work? How can I move the work forward?


Presenting this paper has special significance for me. Through the preparation of the text, and because of my awareness of the context of presenting the work in this symposium, I became focally aware for the first time of the possible global implications of my classroom-based research. This was a revelation for me. Consequently I have come to revision my research within the context of sustainable global educational networks of communication, and this has led to my reconceptualising the wider significance of my work. Originally I had understood what I was doing in terms of working towards social justice in my own workplace. I had seen my work from the perspective of how teachers can generate educational theories from within their own practice, as they exercise their capacity for creating new forms of knowledge, within a process of personal and social empowerment. While I still maintain those commitments, I now see that those practices have the further potential for contributing to global conversations, and actually informing what Jack Whitehead (2003, 2004) calls the education of social formations.


My professional commitments

I need to talk here about my professional commitments. My professional commitments are informed by a value of social justice that prioritises the right of all to learn, regardless of social or academic positioning. I espouse the educational value of all to exercise their originality of mind and critical judgement in order to learn in ways that are appropriate for them. I have reached new understandings of the nature of my work, and I understand especially how that understanding clashes with mainstream thinking about schooling for pupils with specific learning disability (see Bender 2001; Chinn and Ashcroft 1993; Silver and Hagin 2002). I have wrestled with the idea that many learning theories are propositional in form and are often the outcomes of large-scale research programmes, which perceive pupils as objects of study. They can be said to be informed by technicist epistemologies that condone minimalist studies of behaviour, and which take global generalisability as a criterion of validity. The form of theory that legitimises these forms of research is grounded in scientific rather than educational values, and tends to deny a valuing of the individual, which I hold dear. My research takes a different stance, with a view to generating my personal educational theory. This stance is from a self-study perspective, which values individual students and teachers as learners and researchers, working collaboratively, and trying to understand how their ‘I’s’ might transform into ‘we’s’. However, if I am committed to the importance of a form of educational research that informs and is informed by practice, which I am, and if I see educational theory as potentially a world-wide influence for social good, which I do, then I need to understand the apparent contradictions of my contexts of practice, and articulate that understanding for others so that we can learn together how to combat injustice. Further, I need to show how I am able to exercise my intent of transforming current practices that are characterised by life-distorting contradictions into a form of practice that is life-affirming for all.


Here is my research story.


My practical context

I work as a resource teacher with children who have so-called ‘special educational needs’. As part of my research programme, I try to understand how I can improve the learning experience for pupils with dyslexia, a term which also goes by the name of ‘specific learning disability’ in Ireland and the USA. Dyslexia is frequently described as a neurodevelopmental disorder (see for example Doyle 2003). Currently, specific learning disability/dyslexia affects 8% of the Primary school population in Ireland (Government of Ireland, 2002). Dyslexia (specific learning disability) is manifest in specific problems in language, reading and writing. In order to combat the situation, and within its current mandate of putting in place adequate educational provision for all children (Government of Ireland, 1998), the Department of Education and Science in Ireland arranged access to a resource teacher (such as myself) for all primary pupils with specific learning disability. This constituted 2.5 hours per week of individualised tuition. Originally, my research programme focused on how I could improve my own practice as a resource teacher, specifically in terms of how I could help my students to learn according to their own strengths. It is my experience that children learn with little difficulty when they are encouraged to learn in their own way. Given my commitments to pluralistic ways of thinking and living, and my determination to celebrate diversity rather than conformity, I want to promote a view of pedagogy as enabling all children to learn according to their own strengths. In promoting this view, I hope to contribute to new educational practices; and by putting my theory of pedagogy into the public domain, as I am doing now, I hope to contribute also to the legitimisation of new educational theory, specifically in terms of possible new theories of learning.


Methodological frameworks: learning from and with pupils

I am here aiming to explain how my work has transformative potential in enabling the previously silenced voices of marginalized pupils and teachers to be heard among world communities of educational researchers. To achieve my aim, I draw on the ideas and writings of two colleagues in this seminar, Jack Whitehead and Jean McNiff. First, I ask, like Whitehead (1989) ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’. To explain why I am asking this question, I have to tell you that teachers in Ireland tend to be marginalized by the way that knowledge about pedagogy is presented to them in a top-down manner. The gatekeepers of knowledge are third level institutions whose occupants act as arbiters of what constitutes good practice and valid theories of learning. To support this view, let me cite the work of Kerr, who studied the lives of teachers of students with dyslexia. Kerr says that teachers often ‘showed considerable disempowerment or learned helplessness when faced with a student with dyslexia’ (2001: 80). I also have experienced helplessness when faced with a student with dyslexia. I refuse however to continue to be helpless. Instead, I wish to learn how to be helpful, both for myself and for my students. Therefore, in asking my question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ I, a teacher, am placing myself as a learner who wishes to learn a new practice, that of being helpful. In positioning myself as a learner, I am paying close attention to the ideas of Zeichner (1999), who places the teacher as a learner within the new scholarship tradition.


I also draw on the work of my friend Jean McNiff, who links the ideas of individuals’ knowledge creation and creative power. In her ‘Action Research; Principles and Practice’ (2002) she draws on the work of Chomsky (1986) and develops questions that have been posed at previous AERA meetings, about the nature of knowledge, how knowledge is acquired, and how it is used. She asks:


What do we know?

How do we come to know?

How do we test and validate our knowledge?

How do we legitimate our knowledge?

How do we disseminate our knowledge?

How do we use our knowledge?

(McNiff 2000, 2002)


I use these questions to organise my own ideas.


What do we know?

I would like to explain how my work represents a shift in studies about specific learning disability, from the dominant conceptual form of theory to a personal living form of theory. Dominant forms of theory are rooted in the Aristotelean idea of cause and effect, either/or, and the exclusion of the middle ground. These forms of theory are much in evidence in studies of specific learning disability. Historically, specific learning disability (dyslexia) has been understood from this perspective, notably within a medical model. For example, in the 19th Century, Broca (1861) and Wernicke (1974) identified parts of the brain, which control the mechanics of expressive language and the understanding of speech (see Hornsby 1988 for detailed commentaries). Consequently, damage to these areas can lead to specific learning difficulties. Similarly, Kussmaul (1877) discovered that some stroke patients were word blind, or ‘dyslexic’, even when their sight, speech and intellect remained intact (see Ott 1997). The tradition of the medical model is well developed in Ireland. Doyle (2003) uses a medical model in her large-scale government funded research programme into ‘treatments’ for specific learning disability. Specific learning disability therefore becomes a pathology, something to be dealt with. This perspective denies my own educational values, given that I see all individuals as unique and gifted in their own special ways. For me, there is nothing pathological in thinking in non-verbal ways. Indeed, I regard the system that imposes verbal forms of expression as the only valid form of knowing as themselves pathological. Current forms of educational research into specific learning disability are, for me, anti-educational, and contrary in letter and spirit to the idea of education.


How do we come to know?

Here I want to set out how I understand what is going on in terms of knowledge generation within my practice as a teacher, specifically in terms of the assumptions that inform dominant learning strategies and theories. In doing so, I also want to make public my own processes of coming to know. It is only through studying my practice that I have been able to synthesise my originally tacit knowledge into explicit concerns about how my pupils are not only not learning to the best of their ability, but are being prevented from learning by the imposition of dominant technical- rational epistemologies.


In considering how teachers come to know, I have become aware that conventional discourses about dyslexia are rooted in the values of dominance and control. These values are in conflict with my own values of freedom and justice. I have seen how children have been devalued by being prevented from participating in their own process of learning and knowledge generation. My research has challenged my own self-perceptions as a teacher holding absolute power, and I have learned the power of encouraging the children to see themselves as powerful in generating knowledge (McDonagh 2003). I have aimed to help pupils to come to know because I do not subscribe to the rather crude idea of ‘changing people’. I believe that I can influence others, but can really only change myself. Influence can be understood as mediation through the exercise of originality of mind and critical judgement (Said 1975). In my view, teaching is mediation. I have consistently aimed to influence my pupils and my workplace colleagues while respecting their capacity for exercising originality of mind and critical judgement. I have adopted throughout an invitational rather than coercive approach to knowledge creation, which is however a stance that is at odds with the technical rational epistemologies that generate much research into specific learning disability. My research has approached knowledge creation from a perspective that I can trace to the thinking of Plato, who talked of both/and, of holding the one and the many at the same time. I have aimed to shift the focus from research ‘on’ or ‘about’ pupils with specific learning disability to engaging them fully in the investigative process, and I am claiming to have done this. However, to give this claim credibility, I need to test my claim against your critical judgement, and that is the task to which I now turn.


How do we test and validate our knowledge?

I am making a claim that I have enabled my pupils to improve their capacity for reading and writing by developing a form of pedagogy that differs from what is considered normal pedagogies in Ireland. I asked earlier whether I could learn to teach in such a way that my pupils learned. I am claiming that I have. I explained previously that I decided to ground my pedagogy in my commitment to the individual creativity and capacity for knowledge generation of my pupils. Consequently I learned to teach in a way that valued their capacity for creating their own knowledge in their own way. My teaching took the form that I enabled them to learn by using their own particular learning style. In this way, I am claiming that I have contributed to a new educational practice, in that I have learned a new practice and so have my pupils. Further, I have encouraged my pupils to reflect on and critique their own capacity for coming to know, and I have encouraged them to make their learning processes public. In other words, I have encouraged them and enabled them to create their own theories of knowledge.


These are large claims. I am aware of the need for the production of the kind research-based evidence that will support them and will help established their validity. To establish the validity of my claims, I also need to show how my evidence reflects the values I articulated from the beginning as being the inspirational foundations of this research. My commitment to freedom and democracy has guided what I do throughout. Therefore, drawing on the insights of Moira Laidlaw (1996) that values emerge in practice as the criteria by which we make professional judgements on our practices, I now need to show how I established democracy and freedom as the basis for my pedagogical practice.


First, let me give an example of how I provided contexts to enable the voices for my children to be heard, as they worked in a way that spoke to their learning strengths.


On one occasion, I invited the children to use their favourite art media to depict their feelings about dyslexia, and then talk to one another about the experience. In describing his artwork, child B, who has a strong visual intelligence, said:


 ‘I put a kind of border around it, for the glitter. I done the outside and what I feel like in the inside. I’m having a party and there’s the balloons and all that. And then there’s the teacher on the outside. I put all red on the outside of the picture and all nice colours on the inside.’


I asked him if he was referring to all teachers and he responded, ‘Most of them’.

This episode, I believe, demonstrates how my children have learned to express their own creativity, in this case through art, and are able to exercise their critical judgement on their experience of learning.


Aware of the need for methodological rigour in making one’s claim to knowledge, I tested my claim against the responses of colleagues. One colleague wrote to me:


‘You stood aside and gave them (my children) a voice. Art made it safer for them. It was a filter that allowed them to have a voice. Art created an atmosphere where they were prepared to tell what they thought’                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (McDonagh 2003).


I also want to link my work with the National (Primary) Curriculum in Ireland. This curriculum states clearly that the individual should be valued. The experience of schooling should ‘enable the child to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual’ (Government of Ireland 1999: 07). Realising this rhetoric in practice in an Irish context however carries significant implications, given that educational practices and educational theory are rooted in a social scientific model, which often does not respect, or even recognise, individuals and their personal ways of knowing. In order to realise the aims of the National (Primary) Curriculum, is would be important to develop a culture in which individual voices are heard, regardless of the personal capacities of the owners of those voices.


To show how I was trying to live the values of the National (Primary) Curriculum, which are entirely commensurate with my own educational values, I made audiotapes of my children, aged between nine and twelve, telling how they learn spellings. They explain how they have learned to develop personalised ways of learning.


Child 1 said, ‘I think it's easy to spell, if you go by the sounds of the words.’

Child 2 said, ‘I learn a word by first try to count how many vowel sounds in it, how many bits. And then I start to try to learn to spell it.’

Child 3 said, ‘ I learned how to spell by rhyming the words.’

Child 4 said, ‘ I learned how to spell by breaking the words up.’

Child 5 said, ‘I learned the words by going one bit after another.’

Child 6 said, ‘I learned the words by learning them off by heart.’

Child 7 said, ‘I learned the big words by breaking them up into pieces.’

Child 8 said, ‘I learn the words by looking at it three times and saying it three times, then writing it three times.’


They then discuss their different ways of learning spellings, how they worked together to find them, and they show how they arrive at a method that is effective for them.


Child 4 said, ‘There are lots of ways to learn spelling.’

Child 5 said, ‘We all have different ways of learning. I find the best way for me to learn is to talk it over with someone else.’


These extracts show how the children developed their own theories of learning spellings. They also show how the children created these theories dialogically, and developed a capacity for critical reflection on their own processes of learning, what is often called ‘metacognition’ in the literature. This process is recommended in the literature (see for example Slavin 2003), but where are the stories of practice that show the process in action, and which studies produce authenticated evidence to show how and why the process is significant in encouraging children to learn for themselves and articulate their own theories of learning?


This, I believe, is a major significance in my own work. For many years I have silently critiqued dominant voices in the literature that suggested that specific learning difficulty was a pathology, and that children with specific learning difficulty were teachable only through the implementation of pedagogies that were grounded in a medical model (see for example Hulme and Snowling 1997; McAnnaney and Sayles 1999; Pollock and Waller 1997; Thomson 2001; Reid 1998). These authors see children as deficit products and offer various remediation and compensation techniques. I disagree with the assumptions that drive their research, and I also disagree with the form of research they use to generate their findings. My own studies have led me to try to identify learning abilities rather than deficits in my pupils. I, as their teacher, came to understand how children with so-called specific learning disability come to know in a multitude of different ways. In creating opportunities for children to create and tell their knowledge, I am making ‘a space from which the voices of those not normally heard [in education] can be heard’ (Lather 1991, cited in Scott and Usher 1996).


How do we disseminate our knowledge?

Following the recommendations of Snow (2001), I am aware of the need to make my knowledge public so that I may contribute to a knowledge base that will move educational enquiry and educational practices forward. I am also mindful of Freire et al.’s words: ‘The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing’ (Freire et al. 1998). By putting my work into the public domain, I am showing how my new educational practices are contributing to justice and human flourishing; by making public my theory of practice I am showing how I am making my claim with universal intent (Polanyi 1958). I wish to influence the practices of others so that we may all work towards justice and human flourishing.


I began my dissemination process at school level. First I set up a series of presentations, in which the children could present their own work to their teachers. The first meeting involved the eight children who were acting as my research participants at this stage of my research. As noted, these children were officially labelled as having ‘specific learning disability’. I wanted to emphasise to the children that their knowledge was important, and I wanted to emphasise to staff that these children were valuable people, and that colleagues also could learn to teach in a way that enabled the children to learn.


The children explained to the staff the kinds of difficulties they experienced when reading text and how they had managed to transform their difficulties into a capacity for learning. Here is an extract of the tape recorded conversation that ensued.


Teacher: ‘You put so much into the reading that you have to read a second or third time to understand what the piece is about.’

Child: ‘ Yes and the letter that is missing just disappears and the word goes together so that it looks like a word. But it doesn’t make sense and you get it wrong.’

Teacher: ‘It is very difficult for a teacher to understand how somebody could have this problem with reading. They might say hurry up and they would not realise that you’re doing your best.’

Child: ‘That is why we did a project to explain it.’

Teacher: ‘It would be very good to send out a handout to the teachers to help them understand.’


I think this extract demonstrates how teachers can willingly position themselves as learners. The significance in this encounter lies in the way that knowledge generation could be perceived as an ongoing conversation between teachers and pupils, intent on creating their knowledge with one another, and how, through their willingness to exercise their own capacity for critical reflection, teachers and pupils learned with and from one another.


On a second occasion, some nine-year-old pupils presented their project to explain their learning difficulties to their class peers. The school head teacher also attended this meeting. The head teacher spoke of his admiration for my pupils:


(Speaking to me): I see these people here, presenting their project and telling us very publicly how they feel about having learning difficulties. And what I feel is very proud of them. I feel that people like that have other skills, which maybe I haven’t got. I think they have great courage to be able to do what they are doing. (Speaking to the main class): Everybody has difficulties. The next time you have a difficulty, remember that there is someone else who will have a similar difficulty. And if you tell us what that difficulty is, someone will give you an answer to the problem. If you keep it all in here, no one will know. And the problem will get bigger and bigger … so the way to solve a problem is to share a problem.


It is clear that I have further work to do, to encourage colleagues to perceive my children not as ‘having disabilities’ but as legitimated citizens in their own right who just happen to think in a different way. I can claim, however, that I am encouraging different attitudes towards the children, and in so doing am contributing to a new culture of practice that values all children, regardless of how they come to know.


As well as arranging for school-based fora in which I can explain the significance of my work, and its potential contributions for new forms of educational practice and theory, I have also systematically set out to engage the interest of professional colleagues at wider levels. I have spoken at university conferences and Trade Union conferences, and my published work is now cited in conferences on peace education and professional development, in published papers and through electronic media. My work is publicly available through the Internet. This would seem to be a most powerful medium for the dissemination of knowledge, since it can be seen as a forum for democracy in which the dynamic of power relationships are minimalised and people are encouraged to share their work in an open and free atmosphere.


My experience of this symposium is also one that leads me to state my claims in an open and free way. I am showing how my work can be seen as an integrated model of professionals’ and pupils’ collective learning, and that this view of learning moves away from a discourse of teaching and learning as separate realms of experience.


I have explained how my research is impacting on my own institution and also in wider contexts of what is considered good professional practice in Ireland. I am now claiming that my work has the potential for influencing thinking and practice at a global level. I ground these claims in the evidence from published work that comments on the significance of my work for wider contexts. I will cite two instances.


The first instance is a quotation from a paper presented in Israel. Jean McNiff speaks about the way in which I and colleague Bernie Sullivan have struggled against the constraints of working in institutional contexts for the sake of justice and human flourishing.


Both researchers show how they understand how they also are positioned in the struggle, how they are subjected to the same kind of retribution from colleagues as are normally reserved for the children they teach, and how they aim to transform their experience into a form of post-retribution theorising that can contribute to wider educational theorising.                                                                          

(McNiff, 2003: 9)


The same paper refers to my own process of critical reflection on my professional learning, as set out in my Masters disseration:


In doing this piece of research I transformed my own capacity as a critical educator by showing how practitioners’ knowledge – my own and that of the people I teach – can stand as a legitimate form of theory that has considerable implications for future educational practices. … The initial question, “Can I, as a resource teacher, improve the learning experience for children with specific learning disabilities?” has developed into higher order questions of developing pedagogies and reconceptualising curriculum during the course of my research. I move from examining “How do I value the learning of children with specific learning disability?” to “How do I develop appropriate learning theory?” In reporting and disseminating my research findings I build up the knowledge base, which can influence policy making and teacher education.

(Mc Donagh, 2000: 9)

Reflecting on this quotation, now presented in an educational forum on the other side of the world from my classroom, opened my eyes to how teachers’ and pupils’ research cannot be bound by classroom walls. My words have taken wings and influenced researchers, educators and peace activists, people whom I will probably never meet, but in whose learning I might have exercised my educative influence. This gives me great hope for the future. I understand clearly how I am positioned as a person with educative influence, and how I need to use my influence for justice and human flourishing. The experience of presenting my work in this forum of educational researchers has enabled me further to extend my understanding of how we all exercise our influence on one another, through our global educational networks of communication, so that we can transform our current situations into new forms of life-affirming experience for ourselves and the children in our care.



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