Improving Student Learning Through Passion in Our Professional Practice


Jack Whitehead, Department of Education, University of Bath. Keynote Address to the Annual Conference of the Ontario Educational Research Council, Brantford,

28 November, 2003.



One of the pleasures of being included in the OERC programme is in being with educators who are committed to researching their influence on their own and their students' learning and I want to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to speak with you today. As I look at the Conference Planner ( I can feel the passion, energy and disciplined thought that has gone into these presentations. In your willingness to share your stories in this public forum I can feel a shared commitment to learn from each other about possibilities for helping  our students to improve their learning. The majority of my own work in the University of Bath is with educators like yourselves who are interested in their own professional development. It is with educators who are working on doctoral or masters degree programmes. I think of myself as a student of education working with other students of education where I have the responsibility of supporting others in improving their own learning.


In preparing my talk I found myself looking back at my own learning and delightful memories from my visits to Ontario which began in 1995 with an invitation from Tom Russell to visit Queens University to talk with his students about action research. I also found myself wondering what I might bring to share with you from my own learning from my research and from the learning of the teacher-researchers I work with in Bath.    


In previous visits to OERC I have learnt much from Peter Moffatt while he was Director of the Grand Erie District School Board. The first time I heard Peter he inspired me by his relationship with his audience. What he said about education and the way he said it resonated with my most deeply held educational values. Values I hold with a passion that motivates much of what I do. The second time I heard Peter he had mastered a multi-media technology and used a very impressive powerpoint presentation. His enthusiasm for the technology was infectious yet something of the quality of his direct expression of his humanity and connection with his audience was masked by the technology. In the third presentation Peter showed his learning as he communicated his passionately held values directly to his audience with the help of the technology. He also made some awards of plaques of Canadian Geese and explained how the leader in the V formation was supported by the clacking of the Geese following. He made these presentations to emphasise how much his own influence as an educational leader had been enhanced by the support he had received from his colleagues. I am hoping to achieve something similar today as I emphasise the importance of celebrating and researching our values as educators, for a future of humanity that is being influenced by global communications through the internet. Alan Kellas, a colleague in Bath asked me the following question before I left Bath and I'm curious about the answers the video-tape being made today might give me!


"Passion in practice translates to energy in our bodies I think... So my question to you in Ontario is how can you be there breathing, with your self and your body, full of passion and enthusiasm.....AND be fully  present for your audience, fully receptive to their energies in a non colonial way, and allow your energy to meet theirs properly...and can you spend a second breathing together and recognise that the breath in the room is the same breath in the same way that the passion (energy) in the room is the same but individualised and connected." (Kellas, 2003)


In wanting your life-affirming energy, insights and educational enquiries to meet with my own, I propose to pause at times in this address to ask if you wish to respond. Given I am one to your many I am acutely aware of wanting to share this time with you. It won't be a fair distribution of time, but I'm going to aim for 30 minutes with me contributing and 15 minutes for you if you wish to do so!


When I think of the values embodied in who we are and what we are doing I am thinking of the passion, the life-affirming energy, the discipline and the love of learning that is manifest through the publications in 'Passion in Professional Practice', edited by your President Jackie Delong and Cheryl Black, and the following doctoral and masters enquiries completed over the last two years by educators in the Grand Erie District School Board:


Passion in Professional Practice



PhD: Jackie Delong: How Can I Improve My Practice As A Superintendent of Schools and Create My Own Living Educational Theory?

Jackie's five year study emphasised the importance of developing a culture of inquiry within a School Board to support improvements in student learning and enhance the professional development of teachers.


MEd: Teacher Consultant's Role In Developing and Facilitating an Interdisciplinary Studies Course: Dave Abbey


One of my most memorable times in Ontario was at a party hosted by Dave and Lynn Abbey. The passion in Dave's and Lynn's educational conversations is awesome. Lynn became so absorbed that I can still see the black smoke from a tin of toasted muffins forgotten under the grill. This happened with the next batch as well!


MEd: Managing Transitions: Cheryl Black


As Cheryl is now managing one of the transitions in her life-long learning from a masters programme to a doctoral research programme I want to show later a brief clip of a spontaneous moment in a relationship with a student that carries for me her inspirational qualities as an educator.


MEd: A Vision Quest of Support to Improve Student Learning: Validating My Living Standards of Practice: Heather Knill-Griesser


Another memorable time for me, on a previous visit to the Grand Erie District School Board, was in seeing and hearing Heather give a presentation on her masters research to a group of colleagues. It was a multi-media presentation integrating music, poetry, text and the direct communication of Heather's embodied values. I do commend Heather's dissertation to you.


MEd: Geoff Suderman-Gladwell: The Ethics of Personal Subjective Narrative Research


As we explore the implications of living as fully as we can our values in our social contexts and professional practice we sometimes experience a tension when the context appears to constrain or violate our values. I make this as a general point because in my experience everyone I work with bears witness to such experiences and it is wise to develop a social analysis that enables us to comprehend the nature of our social contexts, particularly if we are seeking to influence the education of our social formations. For myself I have found the work of Foucault (1980, 1990), Habermas (1976, 1989, 2002, p. 264), Bourdieu (1990) and Bernstein (2000) most helpful in this regard.  Each of these writers continues to influence my practice as I seek to influence the education of social formations. Because the phrase 'influencing the education of social formations' may not be one you have heard before, here is an illustration to show my meaning.


In 1980 the University of Bath, along with most Universities in the UK, had a regulation that the judgements of examiners of research degrees could not be questioned under any circumstances. As cases began to emerge where examiners' judgements were questioned by students and academic peers there was a campaign to change such regulations. In my own University in 1991 the regulations were changed to permit questioning on the grounds of bias, prejudice and inadequate assessment. When I refer to influencing the education of a social formation I am meaning the influences that bring about such changes, where the rules regulating a social order embody more fully the values I associate with the future of humanity.


The experience of the violation of values in such endeavours can vary in intensity and can sometimes require great courage to face with integrity. The experiences can be painful and include feelings of embarrassment and humiliation as other colleagues of mine can bear witness to (Fletcher, 2003). I don't mean to imply that Geoff Suderman-Gladwell faced all these emotions in his enquiry. What I did see in the course of Geoff's masters programme was his commitment, courage and impressive intellectual capacities in responding to the constraining force of some of the procedures of an ethics committee of a University that did not appear to take account of the ethics of self-study research. 


The above contributions to the professional knowledge-base of education seem to me to be fulfilling the call by Catherine Snow (2001) in her Presidential Address to AERA for practitioners to systematise their knowledge so that it could contribute to the public knowledge-base of education. What I am also claiming is that studies such as those above have now demonstrated that the embodied values of educators can be clarified in the course of their emergence in practice. I am claiming that they can not only be clarified but that in this process of clarification the embodied values of educators are becoming living, educational standards of judgement that can be used in public tests of the validity of claims to educational knowledge. It is this process that Jackie Delong and I (Delong & Whitehead, 1998) drew attention to in a contribution to the Ontario Action Researcher on 'Continuously regenerating developmental standards of practice in teacher education: a cautionary note for the Ontario College of Teachers'


in which we say in relation to the issues of teacher supply and retention:


Everything we say about standards of practice in teacher education is based on the assumption that the quality of student learning within schools is influenced by the quality of teacher professionalism. If there is a shortage of well qualified teachers in classrooms, we are convinced that the quality of students' learning will suffer. Hence we recognize the importance of the political and economic decisions made by the government in relation to rectifying the teacher shortage.  (Delong & Whitehead, 1998)


I hope that this point is clear about transforming our embodied values into public standards of judgement while recognising the influences of our political and economic contexts. I don't think that I can overemphasise its importance for the reconstruction of educational theory and knowledge. I am saying that through self-studies, of our attempts to improve our practice through living our values more fully, we are creating new living standards of educational judgement. These living standards are contributing to knowledge of the new scholarship of educational enquiry. I think Jackie Delong puts this idea well in the abstract of her doctoral thesis:


The originality of the contribution of this thesis to the academic and professional knowledge-base of education is in the systematic way I transform my embodied educational values into educational standards of practice and judgement in the creation of my living educational theory. In the thesis I demonstrate how these values and standards can be used critically both to test the validity of my knowledge-claims and to be a powerful motivator in my living educational inquiry.


In crafting her narrative of learning over her five year research programme Jackie shows how her embodied values are clarified in the course of their emergence and transformed in this process of clarification into communicable standards of judgement. Her values include valuing the other in her professional practice, building a culture of inquiry, reflection, scholarship and creating knowledge.


We have much work to do in researching and communicating the educational influence of who we are and what we do in our classrooms, especially in relation to our embodied values. Here is a video-clip from Cheryl Black's classroom that seems to me to hold much hope for the future in the spontaneous delight of someone who is fully present for her students. The clip comes from a multi-media presentation:

Whitehead, J. (2000) The Living Standards of Practice and Judgement of Professional Educators. A paper produced while a visiting professor at Brock University, Ontario June 2000.


You can access the clip from:


I know it is difficult to share meanings through language in relation to expressions of the human spirit. I tend to talk and write of a life-affirming energy with the vitality both Cheryl and her student are expressing in their relationship through the video-clip. I am suggesting that valid explanations of our educational influence in the learning of our students will need to acknowledge more fully such values.


Having introduced a digital video-clip into my presentation I now want to say something about the educational influence of the new technologies. I think the wide availability of digital cameras, DVDs and the internet is having a generative and transformative influence on the ways in which we can show and explain what we are doing as professional educators. The multi-media technologies can help us to get much closer, than words alone on pages of text, to communicating the nature of the influence of our embodied values and knowledge in our students' learning. However, the Academy has been very slow in opening itself to legitimating these new forms of representation (Eisner, 1993, 1997). My own University is just beginning to look into these possibilities and it seems likely that teacher-researchers such as ourselves will be producing valid,  multi-media accounts of our own learning that will initially meet resistance rather than acceptance in the legitimating procedures of our Universities. Because the curriculum in schools tends to be dominated by what counts as knowledge in our Universities I am suggesting that our autobiographies of our learning, from our self-study research, are contributing to a transformation in what counts as knowledge in the Academy. I think that this will feed back into the processes of improving student learning in our classrooms as we encourage our students to research their own learning. I think the evidence you can access from this presentations shows that this is already going on in my own classrooms in higher education. Because of the present constraints in the curriculum and assessment procedures in the school system it is going to take longer for this influence to be seen in primary and secondary schools.


Having emphasised the importance of our own educational relationships for learning in our classrooms, schools, boards and province I now want to connect our lives and self-studies as educators to the lives and self-studies of educators around the world. By putting this address on the web with all its interconnecting branching networks of communication I hope to be contributing to the development of each other as global educators. At this point I also want to emphasise the point above:


'Hence we recognize the importance of the political and economic decisions made by the government'


What we can do is influenced by politics and economics. Teachers in Iraq as I speak are being influenced in what they can do by political and economic decisions taken in Washington by George Bush and in London by Tony Blair. Michael Moore (2003) has analysed some of these decisions and advocated alternative political and economic choices that are open to debate and action in democratic societies. I am hoping that you think as I do that educating our social formations in learning how to live the values of humanity more fully in what we are doing is one of the most productive things we can do. I say this with the headline, 'Terror at the consultate' from the Independent newspaper of the 21st November 2003, in mind:

"Terrorists linked to al-Qa'ida struck against Britain in the heart of Istanbul yesterday in the worst act of terrorism in modern Turkish history. The double suicide bombings killed at least 27 people and injured at least 450. Two trucks crashed through barriers at the British consulate and rammed into the HSBC headquarters." (Turgat & Huggler, 2003, p.1)


In seeking to be fully present with you today (Scharmer, 2000) I imagine that I will be communicating something of my own passion for education and of my desire to assist my own students to contribute their embodied knowledge as professional educators to our professional knowledge-base.  This passion is values-based. It is in who I am and what I am doing, here and now. The reason I want a video-record of my communications today, as part of my self-study research, is to check to see to what extent I am expressing the meanings of my embodied values with you as I speak. I hope that you will appreciate the educational significance in my own learning and in influence with my students in their own learning of the expression of a life-affirming energy and love of learning.


Through my presentation of evidence from the internet I now want to share the global educational significance of the self-studies of practitioner-researchers, particularly those associated with OERC and the University of Bath. I am thinking of this significance in terms of a commitment to research the implications of experiencing ourselves as living contradictions (Whitehead, 1989)  as we recognise that we are not living our values as fully as we could in our professional lives as educators and educational researchers.


In other words I believe that we are motivated by a desire to improve what we are doing in helping our students to improve their learning and experience a creative tension when we think we could do this better.


Yesterday, Robyn Pound, a health visitor, and regular contributor to Monday evening educational conversations in Bath, received her doctorate at the graduation ceremony of the University of the West of England for her thesis How can I improve my health visiting support of parenting? The creation of an alongside epistemology through action enquiry


It might seem strange to be focusing on health visiting as having fundamental educational significance. Yet I think that all teachers know that the learning that takes place in the home does influence the learning in school. I am placing Robyn Pound's exploration of her learning, in relation to improving her health visiting support of parenting through the quality of relationships she establishes, in the context of the phrase 'in loco parentis'. This might not be familiar with a Canadian audience.  Robyn doesn't use this phrase. It is used in English Law to describe the responsibility of a teacher. I imagine that we all like to feel that our students in schools are experiencing the quality of relationship of a good parent within what we do as educators. Robyn Pound's thesis is focused on the nature of the living standards of judgement in parenting relationships and it seems to me to have profound implications for the knowledge-base of education.


It might also seem a little strange for me to be drawing your attention to the educational significance of an African term, Ubuntu, and of the importance of engaging with what we are doing  in our research as a form of post-colonial theorising. I was introduced to these ideas by Paulus Murray, one of the most passionate educators I have ever met. His writings on his web-site begin with the introduction:


Welcome to my multiracial and inclusive Postcolonial Living Education Theory - practice, research and becoming. By visiting, I hope to share with you some of my passion and spirit in Ubuntu "Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu" ~ 'A person is a person because of other people'


From this focus on 'a person is a person because of other people' in the commonality of our living space, I want to raise an issue I am still struggling to understand in relation to colonial and post-colonial practice. I imagine Canadian audiences, because of your colonial history, are passionate about resisting colonising tendencies, for example from your neighbour to the South. My own difficulty with colonial practices goes back to 1971 when I was studying educational theory at the Institute of Education at London University. In the dominant view of educational theory of the time it was held that my embodied values, the practical principles I used to motivate myself and to explain what I was doing, were only pragmatic maxims that had a crude and superficial justification in practice. In this dominant view it was held that these values and principles from my living educational theory would be replaced in any rationally developed theory by principles with more theoretical justification (Hirst, 1983, p. 18). I experience this kind of 'replacement' as a colonial act and much of my subsequent life in educational research can be understand as seeking to support post-colonial practice in living educational theorising.


I am still struggling to understand the colonial and post-colonial influences of the ideas of myself and my academic colleagues. Take for example Joan Whitehead's recent keynote to the Standing Conference for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT) in which she draws on Michael Fullan's ideas on passion and moral purpose:


'Earlier this year I was fortunate to attend Michael Fullan's UK and Ireland Workshop Tour on Leading in a Culture of Change during which he expressed the view that it takes 3 years to change a primary school, 6 a secondary school and 8 years for an LEA. How long might we ask for the profession?  In his book 'Change Forces with a Vengeance' Fullan (2003) writes about passion and 'moral purpose' which he sees as 'a critical motivator' in change . So, do more of us need to maintain, whilst others rekindle, that sense of passion and purpose that brought us into the profession if we are to be part of creating its future in a way that will make a difference?


On reading a text version of this keynote I was struck by the high status apparently being given  to academics through the referencing. The reference sections of many of my own papers do the same. Take Michael Fullan's ideas as an example. It was as if Michael Fullan's Theories could explain educational change in general and that our living educational theories of educational change  were being colonised through being subsumed within his theory. However, on re-reading the text on the web, with its interconnecting branching networks of communication to the accounts of teacher-researchers in the link in the quote below I could see how Whitehead was referring to Fullan's ideas in a way that enabled them to become part of the generation of the unique living educational theories of practitioners like ourselves.


The web provides us with a very quick and very powerful means of making available to others our own practitioner knowledge (Module section of as well as providing each of us with the means to expand our own knowledge by accessing the knowledge and experience of others. In terms of the language of this conference it enables us as professionals, if we so choose, to be both informed by our peers and to take on a responsibility for informing others. Both I see as part of our obligations as professionals as we become in the future more inquiry minded and more collaborative within and across our sites of learning and professional activity.


For example, when Michael Fullan's words about moral purpose and passion are placed alongside the teacher-researcher accounts such as those of Lloyd (2003), Potts (2003a & b) and Stillman (2003) I think you will see the educational significance of stressing the importance of the generation of each others' living educational theories in going beyond the social analysis of a particular academic and into influencing the education of social formations.


I now want to move further into our international context into China, South Africa and Japan. I want to draw your attention to the educational influence of the values and passion of Dean Tian Fengjun  and  Moira Laidlaw in influencing the development of action research at Guyuan Teachers College in China  and beyond. Moira Laidlaw is in the third year of a Voluntary Service Overseas programme at Guyuan Teachers College. She has described her experiences and the inspirational influence of her colleagues Tian Fengjun and Zhao Xiaohong at http://www.actionresearch/moira.shtml . On the 10th December 2003 Moira Laidlaw and Jean McNiff hope to be present at the opening of China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching.  You can access Dean Tian Fengjun's Action Plan for Improving Practice at


The ideas I have been talking about would not have travelled so far or so fast without the creativity and commitment of Jean McNiff. Three weeks ago Jean was in South Africa giving a series of workshops and lectures at three Universities. You can access her talk on:

How do we develop a twenty-first Century knowledge base for the teaching profession in South Africa? How do we communicate our passion for learning? at Stellanbosch University from:


You can also access her writings from:


together with the free booklet on Action Research in Professional Practice: Concise Advice for new action researchers. Jean made this booklet available to celebrate our 21 years of working together at:


In Japan we have Je Kan Adler Collins introducing ideas on action research to the Faculty of Nursing at Fukuoka University and studying his own practice as he develops a curriculum of the healing nurse. You can access Je Kan's most engaging electronic forum on living-action-research from the bottom of the menu page of One of my most cherished video-clips is of a pedagogic failure of mine. It shows me, with great enthusiasm, failing to communicate the ideas of Basil Bernstein (2000) in his work on Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity to Je Kan on a spectacularly beautiful mountain side in Japan. My pedagogic intent was to communicate to Je Kan Bernstein's ideas on the pedagogisation of knowledge and especially his ideas on the importance of understanding the power relations influencing the legitimisation of knowledge in a particular context. My desire was grounded in my sense of responsibility as an educator to help my students to extend their cognitive range and concerns.


In the development of a curriculum of the healing nurse and of an action research approach to the professional development of nurses within a Japanese University I could see Je Kan might benefit from Bernstein's insights into the issues of power and control related to the recontextualisation of knowledge from his embodied knowledge as a healing nurse in the UK into the curriculum of a healing nurse in a Japanese University. 


However, the video shows that in my enthusiasm to communicate my own insights about the value of Bernstein's ideas I had lost sight of a lesson I thought I had learnt well from the ideas of Martin Buber (1985) concerning the special humility of the educator.


In my enthusiasm and passion I was imposing my ideas onto Je Kan in a way that was serving the colonising interest of replacing his own meanings with my own. Yet again I experienced myself a living contradiction!  This video serves as a reminder for me to hold on to Buber's insight that the special humility of the educator should prevent the imposition of  the hierarchical view of the world of the educator onto the student. The educator's gaze should always be mediated by a sustained connection with the particular being and needs of the student. In my passion and enthusiasm I had permitted the connection to be severed. Part of my delight in viewing the video is in the recognition of how much of value I have learnt from the experience of viewing it. The embarrassment associated with failure is present but the delight in seeing ways of improving what I was doing is stronger. It is in the delight that I feel the hope of learning from error and mistake. While we do make mistakes in our professional lives as educators there is much hope in our learning from these mistakes and sharing this learning with others.


I want to conclude by thanking OERC for the invitation to be with you today. I want to stress the importance of the inclusionality I am always aware of in my visits to Ontario. Maggie Farren (2003), of Dublin City University, refers to this awareness as a form of empathetic connectivity requiring a watchful attention and aesthetic sensitivity to beauty (O' Donohue, 2003). Simon Riding (2003) draws attention to a similar awareness in his 'Living myself through others'. I also felt this quality of inclusionality in my visit to the Western and Central Quebec School Boards and in a recent visit to Japan. My colleague Alan Rayner at Bath has explained why he views inclusional ways of being to be most significant for the future of humanity and I concur with Alan's ideas at If I have done no more than connect you with Alan's ideas on inclusionality I feel my trip will have been worth while.


I also know that I will be taking back to Bath to share directly with my own students, and through the web with other teacher-researchers around the world, your passion, your sense of moral purpose and the educational knowledge you are creating as we work and research to influence the education of our social formations and to help each other and our students to improve all our learning . My thanks to you all.


I want to thank Jean McNiff, Paulus Murray, Alan Kellas, Alan Rayner, Jason Nickels, Daisy Walsh, Tim Small, Sarah Fletcher, Simon Riding, Mark Pott, Paul Hocking, Marian Naidoo and Eleanor Lohr and the Monday Evening Conversation Group in Bath for their responses to earlier drafts of this address.




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