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Why I am going to China(by Jean McNiff)  

2009-06-13 17:42:19|  分类: 谈天说地 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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4th October 2003

 

In a few weeks’ time I am going to China. This will be my first visit there. I am going for personal, professional, and educational reasons. Here I am setting out these reasons, and why they are important to me. I am also setting out my purposes for the visit.

 

My personal reasons are that I am always delighted to go to new places and meet new people. I experience even more joy of learning in my mature life than in earlier days. Rather than consolidating knowledge and taking concrete stands on issues, as I expected, I find myself even more open to new possibilities and new experiences. I am hungry for new ideas and new knowledge, and I surprise myself at this hunger, which I had not realised was there in earlier times and yet is now one of the driving forces in my life.  China will be a wonderful experience because its ways and cultures will be different, and I want to learn, in order to help me understand how to live better as a free citizen, together with other free citizens, and learn how to transform our world into a place that is a reflection of our kindness and compassion.

 

My professional reasons are important. I am visiting my good friend Moira Laidlaw, who went to China two years ago with the Voluntary Services Overseas initiative. She is working at the Guyuan Teachers’ College in Guyuan, which is a city in Ningxia Province, the People’s Republic of China. She is doing stunning work, which is already making significant contributions to new educational practices in China. This work also has the potential to make significant contributions to educational theory at global level. Moira has introduced new forms of teacher professional education in China. She is teaching her colleagues to investigate and evaluate their own practice, using an action research methodology. This means that teachers begin to problematise and evaluate their work by asking, ‘Am I entirely satisfied with what I am doing? In what ways could I work differently? How do I improve what I am doing?’ Moira is encouraging teachers not only to investigate their practice; she is also encouraging them to make their stories public, so that other people can learn from those stories.

 

I know that her time in China has not been easy for Moira. In the early days she used to write letters to the action research group, convened by Jack Whitehead at the University of Bath, which she and I used to attend on a regular basis. Those letters contained mixed emotions. They were full of pain and heartache, deep homesickness, a longing to be with people from her own culture, a frustration because of the difficulties of having to learn to adapt to new ways. Moira would write also about her reactions to her new circumstances and her responses to the people of China, the deep sadness at the lack of material comforts, the compassion for those who had so little yet worked so hard. At the same time the letters were full of the greatest admiration, for people who, although their lives were often hard and harsh, yet displayed no sense of resentment to hardship nor complained, but rejoiced in their capacity to learn and their access to education. This access, I believe, would be no access at all for many people. I recall one of Moira’s stories that told of small children who walked to school for two hours, and two hours home again, in flimsy shoes or no shoes, across inhospitable territory, because they had the chance to go to school. Moira wrote of parents who give up everything in order to afford their children the chance of an education. She wrote of teachers, who worked long, long hours, in order to demonstrate their professional competence in their struggle to be the best they can be. I am full of admiration for Moira, and for the people she is working with. Here I want to explore some of the reasons I admire Moira and her colleagues so much.

 

In her later letters, Moira began to celebrate her sense of belonging to the people of China. The transition in her own responses, as they appear in Moira’s letters, is profoundly moving. From her initial discomfort with having to adapt to Chinese ways, she now speaks about being part of the people and regarding China as her spiritual home. It seems that Moira has overcome her own initial resistance to adapting to a new culture, and has now become so fully integrated that she regards it as part of her identity. That has happened because of the relationships that Moira has developed. She has grown to love the people she works with, to become one with them in their struggle to overcome the difficulties of life and transform life into an aesthetically wonderful experience. Life is, indeed, something of great beauty. Moira shows how she has learned to transform her own experience of alienation into one of belonging, from despair into rejoicing. It is not that her material circumstances have changed. It is because her responses to her circumstances have changed. Perhaps this is how personal transformation works – we have to come to understand our own experience of despair in order fully to come to understand our experience of fulfilment. Perhaps we have to experience ourselves as strangers first in order to belong. Perhaps we have to regard belonging to a particular place and time and people as a transitory phenomenon, something to be cherished for a time but left in order to move on. Perhaps we belong to some individuals only on a temporary, borrowed basis, and often we have to leave them physically in order to go to places where there is other important work to be done. I don’t know. I can write about my own experience, and I read Moira’s letters about her experience, and I relate strongly to what she writes as she tells how her narratives of pain have transformed into narratives of joyful realisation.

 

I am going to China also for educational reasons. My reasons are to do with the need to support the work of those whose aim is to popularise and disseminate forms of education that show the potential of practitioners to transform their own lives into creative and life-affirming experiences. Moira is encouraging teachers to regard themselves as researchers, as powerful knowledge-creators. In this endeavour she is supported by many colleagues in her own workplace who demonstrate the greatest courage and integrity in the endeavour – for example, Dean Tian Fengjun who is the Dean of the Foreign Languages and Literature Department at Guyuan Teachers’ College. Moira has introduced action research ways of working that are grounded in the premise that teachers know best what they are doing, but also need to make themselves accountable for what they are doing, so that they show how they do not practise in ways that are potentially oppressive, but aim for the liberation of learners and celebrate individuals’ different forms of knowledge and different forms of coming to know. Moira teaches teachers to question their practice, to ask themselves questions about whether their practices encourage learning, whether they encourage people to think for themselves and raise questions about their own effectiveness. She teaches teachers to evaluate their work, in terms of their own educational values, and to see whether that work is meeting their own high standards of practice. In doing this, Moira is encouraging teachers to see themselves as their own best critics and professional educators. She is encouraging them to regard their practice as a form of professional theorising. She has encouraged teachers to write about their experiences, and set out how they have learned to investigate what they are doing, with a critical eye, and to transform what they are doing in order to ensure that the quality of learning experience of the children in their care is the best it can be.

 

This has deep implications for the future of educational theory. In conventional forms of educational research, there is an assumption that research is done by so-called experts at specialist research institutions. Research is generally held to be the property usually of academics in higher education contexts. There is also an expectation that this research is the basis for educational theorising. Researchers generate their theories by drawing on their research findings, and disseminate those theories through the literature, with the expectation that practitioners will accept the theories and apply them to their own practice. An implication of this view for the professional education of practitioners, including teachers, is that the work of practitioners and teachers is to implement existing theory. Teachers are not required to think for themselves, but to apply theory and check to what extent their practice meets the requirements of the theory.

 

Moira and her colleagues are changing this. Teachers in Guyuan Teachers’ College have learned to research their own practice, that is, to investigate, challenge and improve what they are doing. By doing their research, they are changing what counts as research. Their research is every bit as important as the research undertaken by researchers at universities. Whereas researchers at universities tend to generate abstract theories about specific subject matters, researchers in schools tend to generate practical theories about specific ways of working in real life contexts. Because these practical theories are rooted in their practice, and because practice is what practitioners do, their theories are embodied within their lives, so they become what Jack Whitehead calls ‘living educational theories’.

 

Moira and her colleagues are generating their living educational theories about how they are and how they work together. They are showing how they are improving the quality of education for themselves and for the adults and young people in their care. They are showing how their personal theories of practice improve the quality of learning experience for individuals, and also how they are learning to work together for collective good. By generating their theories, Moira and her colleagues are transforming what counts as theory. Theory, for them, is not only the abstract theory generated by researchers in higher education settings, although they recognise the usefulness of many of these theories and indeed draw on those theories to inform their own work. Theory, for them, also means the embodied, practical theories of practitioners as they improve the quality of life experience for all.

 

These are some of the reasons I am going to China. I also have specific purposes. Like Moira and other colleagues, I also want to celebrate the right of all people to know in their own ways, to come to know in their own ways, and to have those individual ways recognised and celebrated. I believe that having new ideas accepted in the public domain involves several sets of conditions. First, it is important to hold our work up to public critique, so that the work is seen to have integrity and value on its own terms, and is not seen only as our own opinion. Second, it is important to generate a momentum around the ideas so that they will be accepted by the public as having potential significance for new forms of living. The first process is about validating claims to knowledge. In order to validate the work, it is important to put the work into the public domain for stringent critique. The second process is about legitimating those claims in the public mind. In order to get public legitimation, it is important to disseminate the work so that other people can state how they learn from it and adopt or adapt it to their own practice, in this case, how teachers can learn from the public accounts of other teachers to help them also come to generate their own theories of practice.

 

My purposes in going to China are to do with celebrating the good work that Moira and her colleagues are doing, and also to liaise with Moira and colleagues in terms of disseminating the work with a view to gaining its legitimation. My own best platform for disseminating ideas is writing. At the moment I am working on some new texts. One of them is a book on action research for practising teachers who are new to the idea of action research. This book will contain several case studies of teachers investigating their practice. I am hoping that these case studies will be stories from teachers around the world, including China.

 

I want to finish this letter by emphasising the importance of the work of teachers in China, both in terms of contributing to new forms of educational practice in China, and also in terms of contributing to new forms of educational theory for global dissemination. I believe that practitioners are the real agents of social change. By finding solidarity in their own ideas and ideals, by grounding their work in their own high educational principles, they can show how they are transforming existing practices into new ones for social evolution. By showing the potentials of their own theories of practice for social benefit, they can build up a body of case study evidence that can go far in persuading politicians to provide funding and resources for education, not only in China but also around the world. By showing how they have improved their own understanding by investigating their practice, and showing how they developed that understanding by working collaboratively with others, they can show how, as a social force, they are helping others to understand how they, too, might also change their own circumstances for social good. The work of teachers in Guyuan in Ningxia Province stands with the work of teachers around the world, in terms of its quality and its significance.

 

I am preparing now for my first journey to China. In many ways, I feel as if I am already there, in terms of the affinity I feel with Moira and teachers, and in terms of our collective commitment to educational and social good.

 

Jean McNiff

Dorset, 4th October 2003

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