‘Living Educational Theorising:

How I developed a more Democratic Educational Practice.’

By Moira Laidlaw,

Lifelong Professor of Educational Research

Ningxia Teachers University,

Guyuan, 756000,

Ningxia Province,



Abstract: This paper looks at the development of a living educational theorising form of Action Research and provides a personal example. I argue living educational theorising is distinct from other forms of Action Research in terms of its values assumptions, representations, practices and theorising. I also suggest that any theory from this approach cannot be captured once and for all but is developmental in nature. The second part of the paper draws on my work in China’s rural northwest as a volunteer, where I helped set up and then became advisor for China’s first Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching.


Keywords: Living Educational Theories; Democratic Values; Educational Development; Inclusionality.



Living educational theorising is developed mostly in Ph.D. theses and associated work (http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/living.shtml). I want to be explicit that living educational theorising is not concerned only with research in educational establishments and contexts, but can be useful in any sphere in which practitioners wish to improve learning or to live their values more fully in their actions. I am not writing this article with a view to reifying living educational theorising as a set form.


I want to outline the main concepts and value-laden practices evolving from living educational theories and show how these approaches may answer some of the current problems in educational theorising and representation (Eisner, 1993; Bassey, 1997; Whitehead, 2007). I would then like to illustrate the ways in which I have engaged in my own enquiry and how this has helped me to develop my practice. I believe that Living Educational Theories are powerful ways of improving practice and making original contributions to the development of education.



I believe, like Kilpatrick (1951), that educational research may have profound implications for the future of humanity, which therefore makes the work we are all doing in the name of education vitally important. I am assuming you are familiar with arguments on the nature of theories of knowledge in a postmodern era, in which the work we are doing is not in principle governed by pre-established rules, but rather we work out our values or rules from what it is we create (Lyotard 1984: 81). I will try to show how living educational theorists evolve their own developmental standards of judgement in evaluating educational quality alongside this concept.


In the 1990s, Schon called for a new epistemology of practice (Schon, 1995) because of an incompatibility with social, educational and professional needs. Eisner called for new forms of representation in educational research writings (Eisner, 1993, 1997) in order to gain greater authenticity in claims to knowledge. In addition Elliott (1998) was researching curricula in schools in terms of finding practical solutions to problems. It is my belief that living educational theorising offers some answers to social, theoretical and professional problems in educational research and practice. I also want to make explicit at this point the significance of the differences between education research and educational research:


Geoff Whitty (2005) wrote:


One way of handling the distinction might be to use the terms 'education research' and 'educational research' more carefully… It may be that within that field we should reserve the term educational research for work that is consciously geared towards improving policy and practice.....


Living educational theories balance the goals of improving learning and living out  values more fully, which they qualify as educational.


There can be a tension between education researchers and educational researchers. Historically education researchers have dominated what counts as educational research and educational theory. In my view of living educational theories, insights from the theories of education researchers are integrated within a living educational theory without dominating what counts as a theory of education.


In Part One I want to look at the characteristics of living educational theories, from which I will then present something from my own educational development in Part Two.


Part One: What Constitutes Living Educational Theories?


1) The Action Reflection Cycle:

In 1989 Whitehead wrote the first article about Living educational theorising, drawing on his 1985 work in which he made claims of the educational value of placing one’s ‘I’ into the centre of the following form of logic in pursuit of educational ends:


I experience a problem when some of my educational values are negated in my practice.

I imagine a solution to my problem.

I act in the direction of my solution.

I evaluate the outcomes of my actions.

I modify my problems, ideas and actions in the light of my evaluations. (My emphasis.)

(Whitehead, 1985: 2)


2) ‘I’ as a Living Contradiction, and Dialectical Knowledge:

First, let’s look at the idea of ‘I’ as a living contradiction.


In addition to placing the individual’s own agency into this systematic action-reflection cycle, Whitehead incorporated the idea of ‘I’ as a living contradiction (Ilyenkov, 1977).


There are broadly two kinds of living contradiction:

The internal living contradiction. In other words a person may believe s/he holds certain values but doesn’t always live them out. For example, in 1993 I was working at the University of Bath as a tutor in Action Research and helping my Post Graduate Certificate of Education students in their own action research enquiries on teaching practice. We discussed the importance of placing democratic processes at the heart of educational enquiry but when reviewing my data, I found I ‘talked at them’, and failed to give them the space to explore their own ideas. I espoused democratic values but didn’t live up to them. Exposing this living contradiction helped me to improve my practice by living out my values more fully (Laidlaw, 1994).


The external living contradiction: Here there is a conflict between what one wants to do and what the social/instutional/hegemonic/political conditions support. For example, when I taught Teaching Methodology in China I had a view of how it should be taught, and wanted to facilitate that with my students (see http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/moira/ml120704.htm). However, my student-centred methodologies were constantly in contradiction to the Confucian and teacher-centred premises and political realities of Chinese classrooms and social norms. (More later.)


Whitehead claims that the living contradiction is a universal phenomenon. In other words, everyone believes they are doing one thing, but at the same time, to however small a degree, they are incorporating the opposite values into what they are actually doing. This is why the action plan begins with the question: What do I want to improve? The discovery of one’s own living contradictions enables people to make progress in their educational development and improve learning. Researchers frame answers to the above questions, ‘How can I improve my practice?’ which could translate, for example, into: ‘How can I improve my managerial skills when dealing with contentious situations?’ or ‘How can I improve the standard of nursing care on my ward?’ In laying bare the living contradiction(s), researchers improve the conditions for learning. Whitehead argues that professionals can find answers to questions of principle, which to an extent answers Pring’s (2007) misgivings about the moral state of some current research carried out in the name of improving learning.


Dialectical knowledge: Dialectical knowledge is derived from question and answer, deriving from Socrates. A head-teacher might be concerned about how s/he can deal with an impending government inspection. S/he therefore asks herself: ‘How can I work with my staff in managing the processes of inspection educationally?’ In attempting to answer this question s/he will need to call on many different sources of information and feedback in order to triangulate insights and render the resulting knowledge and theories educational and practical.


Because a living contradiction is at the heart of dialectical reasoning in living educational theorising, researchers require flexibility when developing knowledge and theory. Like other forms of Action Research – for example the participatory approach (eds.) Reason and Bradbury, (2001) or the collaborative approach (Coghlan and Branick (2005)) – the nature of knowledge and theory is problematic so we ask, ‘How do we know what we know?’ ‘How can we represent what we know?’ ‘How can we share our understandings?’ ‘How can we validate them?’ ‘How can we use the knowledge to develop educational theories?’ ‘How valuable are this knowledge and theory?’ ‘To whom are they important and why?’


Action Researchers are familiar with arguments about the suitability of developing different kinds of knowledge for educational research. Living educational theories in like other forms, deal with dialectical knowledge, which can incorporate propositional knowledge, as you can see from my bibliography. By propositional knowledge I mean knowledge formed through statements of the kind, This is a cat, or When I was a little girl I enjoyed eating ice-cream. This knowledge isn’t created through dynamic interaction; it is the kind of knowledge that dominated educational discourse in the sixties and seventies, called the disciplines approach (Hirst, 1983; Peters, 1977). This divided knowledge about education into the sociology, history, philosophy and psychology of education. It implied that theories of education could be applied to practice, but without any acknowledgement that human beings are not reducible to generalisations. Whitehead (1989) and others (McNiff, 1993; Lomax, 1994) argued that applying educational theories to practice was inappropriate and that educational research needed to build its educational knowledge and theories from within the developmental processes of education themselves. Thus the kind of knowledge and theory emerging from the kinds of enquiries about how to improve practice are dialectical in nature, although still drawing on insights derived from other forms.


3) Evolving developmental standards of judgement:

Another characteristic of living educational theories is their recognition that values are not static, but develop as we develop (Laidlaw, 1996). Consider Mahatma Gandhi, who was stirred by self-determination for his people. His value about self-determination developed as his experience of British Rule grew, so his self-determination became associated with such qualities as passive resistance and simplicity of lifestyle. In a similar process, my value of democracy has grown from its naēve beginnings (Laidlaw, 1994) into something more sophisticated and living in my practice (Li & Laidlaw, 2006). It is in the developmental nature of values that most of the claims to validity in living educational theorising reside.


4) Accounting for Educational Improvements: Introducing Inclusionality

Living educational theorists must account for the claims they make and submit accounts to rigorous and public forms of validation (Winter, 1989; Stenhouse, 1983). Recently Living Educational Theorists (Naidoo, 2005; Charles, 2007; Bognar, 2008) have been incorporating multi-media forms of representation in their doctoral theses in order to come closer to the lived experience of the learners.


I believe the struggle for authentic representation in the 1990s and now in the 21st century is also the struggle for truth. I am not suggesting that living educational theorists corner the market on truth. Such a concept is riddled with modernist contradictions and is not tenable in a postmodern era. I do suggest that living educational theorists have found ways of reducing the distance between lived and recorded experience in their accounts of educational improvement.


A useful concept in the development of narrowing this gap comes in the form of inclusionality (Rayner, 2003). This holds that in all our relationships there are connective, reflexive and co-creative awarenesses of space and boundaries. We are not discretely ‘I’ or ‘we’, but both at the same time as in a quantum universe (Zohar, 1990). In an educational relationship one’s sense of being and self may fluctuate and incorporate aspects of the other during the process, which may have a lasting influence on development of the individual or how they relate to each other. My understanding of inclusionality embraces the idea of resolution rather than fragmentation. I hope this will become clearer in Part Two when I present aspects of my own living educational theorising.


The idea of ebbing and flowing within educative relationships is also what I mean when I talk later about educational influences. Living educational theorists are aware of influences rather than cause and effect (McNiff, 2007) and that processes are rarely one thing or another, but exist simultaneously as states of in-betweenness (Charles, 2007). It explains processes of becoming. Although you could trawl through all the literature on living educational theorising you would not find any two accounts the same. There will, however, be confluences in the developmental values as standards of judgement. It is through the shared values that living educational theories gain their relatability (Bassey, 1998) or the Action Research equivalent of generalisability.


From there I would now like to present aspects of my own current Living educational theorising. Bearing the above in mind, I hope you will see the strands described there existing to appropriate degrees within my own account.


Part Two: My own living educational theorising

From August 2001 until July 2006 I was in the northwest of China as a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). The reasons I went are detailed in Laidlaw, 2001, but suffice it to say I wanted a challenge and I felt I had enjoyed many privileges in my educational life and I wanted to give something back. I went as an Oral English teacher and my placement developed into one of Advisor for China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research set up in Ningxia Teachers University in December 2003. This narrative represents my living educational theorising because my professional development was intentional, researched and largely validated, details of which I will provide throughout this second part.



Before leaving for China I was teaching English at a girls’ state school in Bath. I inaugurated action research enquiries with students and gave them extensive freedom of choice about how they might learn a particular Unit of Work. (See papers at http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml) A poetry unit led to 12 year old girls being able to present some insights about the poems to their peers with the standards of judgement by which they wanted their work to be validated. Any form of representation was acceptable as long as it showed that they had understood something about the self-chosen poems and could discuss in what ways their presentation was educational. Have a look at Hayley talking about her decision to represent her understanding pictorially, at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmM4QiXUtbU When viewing this video I was pleased at what I saw as her educational achievement. I felt that I had clearly demonstrated democratic values in the classroom and that this had influenced the children educationally. My value of democracy was heavily weighted towards the empowerment of individuals. I then understood educational democracy to mean enabling individuals to be able to empower themselves in the promotion of individual and social harmony, with the stress on individual fulfilment.


Ningxia Teachers University and early days:

Ningxia Teachers University (formerly Guyuan Teachers College until May 2006) is situated in the south of Ningxia Province, China’s smallest, and one of the poorest, provinces in the country. Guyuan is the smallest city in China with an internal population of 56,000 people and a total population (including all outlying villages and prefectural settlements) of 200,000. In October 2001 I went to see Dean Tian Fengjun who ran the Foreign Languages Department to ask whether, in addition to Oral English, I might be allowed to teach more student-centred teaching methodology. VSO’s main aims in China are related to sustainable development (VSO, 2004), enabling indigenous peoples to manage themselves without relying on foreign intervention. I felt that working with colleagues and students on student-centred methodologies would be appropriate. At the end of my first term I went to see Dean Tian again to suggest that Action Planning might be a helpful aid to professional development in the department. My own Action Research question then was: How can I promote educational sustainable development? The question never changed throughout my five-year placement, but my understandings of sustainable development and democratic practices did, and these constitute something of my living educational theorising.


My Living Contradiction:

I wanted to find ways of building bridges between teacher-centred and learner-centred education. In 2002 and 2003 I came up against passive resistance by some colleagues. They couldn’t see the point of choosing and pursuing their own enquiries. Why wasn’t I more directive? I could simply come into their classrooms and tell them what was wrong, as it stood to reason, I knew the answers! It was my job, wasn’t it? I was the ‘foreign expert’, wasn’t I? I was in a quandary! I didn’t believe in pushing people towards my own solutions, when I had experienced the value of learning for myself in my own way. I had a conversation (Laidlaw, 2003) with Li Peidong, an experienced colleague in the department at this difficult time:


Li Peidong: Moira, this is not England. This is China. In China we follow the leader.

Moira: But in Action Research we become our own leader.

(LP laughs)

Li Peidong: If you continue to refuse to lead us, then we will be uncomfortable and the work will not get done. You have to learn to lead us until we can do it for ourselves.

Moira: I don’t know how to do that. Can you help me?

Li Peidong: Another living contradiction, eh?



I was in a dilemma. As Jarvis et al (2003) wrote:


‘How Chinese [people] learn is intimately linked to the nature of Chinese culture and society [which is] characterised by collectivism and filial piety.’ (p.87)


My understanding of collectivism was that it was in direct contradiction to democratic values. I visited classrooms and wrote notes about how what I was seeing fitted into their own action research enquiries (see lesson notes I made for one colleague, Liu Xia, at http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/moira/mlliuxia80605.htm). I tried to highlight living contradictions as a means of moving forward, yet found it difficult to promote and support collective enquiries, which were suggested by Dean Tian and Li Peidong. We held meetings, worked on a one-to-one basis, but I continually felt pressurised to give solutions. (Some of this process is outlined in Li and Laidlaw, 2006, published in this journal.) In short, I was being asked to generalise in a traditional way, teach didactically and set learning-parameters. I resisted, but instead of this ‘improving’ the situation (by which I meant enabling individuals to set their own goals and work towards them with a sense of what their own educational values were, by which to judge their work) I was confronted by disgruntled colleagues going through the motions.  The impetus of our work was flagging.


My insights at that time could be summed up by the phrase: You WILL be democratic! A true living contradiction!


However, in 2004 Dean Tian produced his own action research enquiry (Tian, 2005). This was a huge vote of confidence in our action research approach, given the tendency in China for organisations to be hierarchical (Martin, 1999). In his paper Dean Tian wrote about his own educational development without valorising his own achievements. Putting himself into the enquiry was a major step forward for the growth of Action Research at the Centre. Instead of writing a document by which he could control the knowledge developing at the Centre, he wrote about how he was facilitating others to create their own knowledge and theories. It was, however, written from the point of view of the significance of democratic processes as a way of focusing on group, rather than individual, harmony. This emphasis on group harmony was becoming more and more integrated within my own value of democracy.


Resolving the Living Contradiction through an Inclusional form of Educational Development:

As Li Peidong and I have already written about (Li & Laidlaw, 2006) we realised that what we needed in order to promote educational sustainable development would be enquiries that enabled individuals and groups to interact in ways more conducive to Chinese ways of knowing. Our Action Research enquiries were already grouping themselves around China’s New Curriculum for the Teaching of English (NC), which advocates student-centred teaching and learning, together with peer-evaluation. By developing programmes of study and methodology classes, centring on the NC, colleagues began to develop enquiries in special-interest groups. I stepped back from a leadership position towards more of an advisory role. The many papers produced at this time (2004) and through publications of case-studies in books by Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead, as well as an edited series of case-studies and reports  from this time finally published two years later (Tian & Laidlaw, 2006) - reveal the creativity and progression of our action research centre, as well as increased ownership of the project by members and groups within the AR Centre.


In September 2004 I was awarded China’s State Friendship Award. I mention this because it was a high status social validation of the work we were doing at the Centre. Dean Tian wrote many documents to attest to my suitability. I was aware that it wasn’t simply a personal affirmation from him and the University, but an astute political move on his part to raise our profile as a Centre with Beijing. Our increasing visibility was considered very important in rural China (Laidlaw, 2004).


Action Research with Chinese Characteristics: inclusional values

Throughout 2005 my colleagues and I (and there were now 42 members of the AR group) continued to support individual and group enquiries. An idea was emerging about pursuing Action Research with Chinese characteristics. My time in China had taught me the importance that people in China seemed to place on integrating external ideas with a particular Chinese slant. I was aware already of the idea of具有中国特色的社会主义, (Socialism with Chinese characteristics) propounded by Deng Xiaoping’s successors. Why not Action Research with Chinese characteristics? Might not this resolve the contradictions between democratic and collective, between group and individual, between past and future? Would it not also answer the dilemmas posed by sustainable educational development? My aim was to leave the Centre self-perpetuating in its own way and for its own educational aims. Action Research with Chinese characteristics would appear to mitigate in all areas where we perceived contradictions (ed. Tian and Laidlaw, 2006).


If something were to grow in Guyuan, it had to be nurtured from the soil already there. We couldn’t transplant something and expect it to flourish. I was also the least likely to be able to understand what AR with Chinese characteristics might look like, thus I couldn’t facilitate the process of finding it. In a paper written shortly before I left Guyuan in July 2006, a colleague Ma Xiaoxia (2006) concludes her case-study with these words:


And the New Curriculum…shows a respect for…a dialectical form of knowledge, because it accords students as well as teachers the right to find different ways of understanding the world The most important dilemma, to my mind, in matters of educational values is whether people are enlightened with, or entitled to, certain freedoms to think and behave. As for static knowledge and dynamic knowledge, they are actually not completely in contradiction to each other, and thus can collaborate... That is, students should be enlightened with manifold freedoms to develop their own thinking patterns, and given the right and the responsibility to speak and create opportunities for mutual collaboration.


In my opinion Ma’s words show a blending of strengths with a desire for harmony and resolution. It may be that this newly-emerging form may include syntheses of different traditions, rather than a concentration on polarisation and contradiction. She does not endorse one theoretical tradition or another, she sees an opportunity for a dialectical relationship between the two. I would suggest that her understanding shows an inclusional way of thinking.


What about my own living educational theorising?

When I was teaching in Bath, as I mentioned before, Jack Whitehead videoed some of my classroom practice (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmM4QiXUtbU) already discussed earlier. He visited me in China in 2005 as well and videoed the end of a lesson. I was saying cheerio to the ninety or so students as they left the room and without losing sight of the group, I singled out one student, Miss Tian, because I wanted to praise her for having the courage to disagree with something I’d said. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1jEOhxDGno)


When I view both videos mentioned, I find myself dissatisfied with the one from 2001. Hayley is sitting with Sally, who doesn’t speak at all and looks distinctly uncomfortable throughout the video. I cannot believe I didn’t see the implications of this before. I thought I was managing a democratic process of education with all the girls, whereas I now see that Sally was uneasy, and therefore my actions were disempowering her. I was sacrificing the group to the individual.


In the later video made in Guyuan I see myself balancing the needs of the individual within the needs of the group. Not favouring one over the other, but showing simultaneously my respect for the individual and my respect for the group. I now perceive this balance as more educational than my previous practice with Hayley and Sally. The later video seems to be more educational in living out a more mature understanding of what it means to influence students democratically, balancing the needs of the one with the needs of the many for the greater and smaller good. This re-evaluation is in the nature of living educational theorising. My practice isn’t static: it develops because the values underlying it are themselves developing and I am continuing to learn. What I mean now by democratic actions in the name of education, is about being able to empower groups and individuals at the same time, without the sense that one is in contradiction to the other. I sense in the future this value will continue to develop and help me improve the quality of my teaching and learning.


As a practitioner-researcher I also want to contribute to the professional knowledge-base of education with a story that is my living educational theorising (McNiff, 2007). In particular I want to emphasise the importance of the development of living educational theories with Chinese characteristics. I am thinking here of the inclusional qualities embodied and expressed by the Chinese practitioner-researchers at Ningxia Teacher’s University (http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/moira.shtml ) whose own living educational theories are showing how individuals’ uniqueness and creativity can be supported within the community relationships that are contributing to the education of our societies.



I have tried to show what I mean by living educational theorising from both theoretical and practical points of view. I would like to have represented my findings in more diverse ways (particularly through visual means – but do take a look at stills of my Teaching Methodology classroom at Guyuan at http://www.jackwhitehead.com/moira151004/moira151004.html ). Facilities in rural China were restricted, but I hope the insights I have given have shown you some of the possibilities of this approach.


I see the importance of living educational theorising as having answers to some of the theoretical, moral and political issues of the day. For example, what constitutes ‘good education’, and ‘What is education for? are widely universally-discussed topics (to which 107 articles in the Times Education Supplement over the last few years attest). If Kilpatrick (1951) was right, and educational research does have implications for the future of humanity, then undertaking living educational theorising enquiries, that can transform knowledge and theory in ways which can strengthen individual, group and social  learning (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006) may be one approach towards the good of humanity.



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