From supervision to supervisor:

Responsibility as logic

by Professor Moira Laidlaw, Ningxia Teachers University


Paper presented at the Monday Evening Educational Conversation of 26 February 2007 convened in the Department of Education, University of Bath.


Philo of Alexandria: Be kind, for everyone you meet today is involved in a great struggle.



I want to describe and explain the educational influences, which have helped me to clarify my values in action in the name of education between 1990 and today. As I leave VSO's care as a charitable organisation, whose motto is: 'sharing skills, changing lives', in order to go back to rural China as an independent educational action researcher for however long they'll have me, I have come to understand the importance of knowing where I've been to help me to understand where I am now and where I'm going. I believe this present writing is a way of accounting for myself (Holley in ed. Laidlaw, Lomax and Whitehead, 1994), which I hold to be a professional requirement in what I am doing in the name of education. In addition, it helps me to clarify what it is about the constellation of values that have helped me to mould myself into the kind of educator I want to be. I am not suggesting a linear progression from A-Z, but rather a journey, whose landmarks I recognise as influential in my educational development.


One of the most significant periods for me of my own educational development was as a Ph.D. student with Jack Whitehead at the University of Bath. This part of the present writing is not calculated as a testament to him, but rather a free acknowledgement of how his talents as a supervisor helped me to self-evaluate and take responsibility for my own development. I have written elsewhere (Laidlaw, 2007, BERA elist) about the specific ways in which Jack helped me to harness my own gifts and come to terms (literally and metaphorically) as an agent of change in my own life, but in this writing I will take a couple of instances with references to how these have influenced my actions. Like Jack, I do not claim that he educated me. I have educated myself. My living educational theories (Laidlaw, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, a&b) belong to me but I warmly acknowledge Jack's involvement in the processes of my educational maturation and his continuing support for me as a post-doctoral colleague and friend.[1]


In providing a safe yet challenging space to me, Jack nurtured my development. He set out, I am sure, to nurture my educational development, but he ended up helping me to grow up. In insisting that I alone was responsible for my achievements and my failures, he played to my grown-up nature, rather than the, at times, frightened child of my neuroses. The space Jack created for me was educational rather than personal, and over the six years of my research programme, I came to value the space and time and the contours of this space. This space was somewhere in which I was free to try hard. I was free to fail. This space was contingent on my pursuing educational enquiry, but wasn't conditional on whether I 'passed or failed'. This gave me the security I needed to develop and then take responsibility for that development. I was free to be enthusiastic and eccentric and myself. I was free to explore the creative bent of my character in whatever ways it manifested itself (with me it was stories and fiction and self-analysis). I was not, however, free to expect Jack to take responsibility for anything in my psyche that was not his concern. That particular boundary seemed to me at the time to stem from a ruthlessness in him, and a natural human frailty in me. After all, I'd had a hard time! Why would he not meet me halfway? I came to understand through the years that Jack's consistent vision about the purposes and potentials of development needed both a keen psychological insight in the moment coupled with a vision of future possibilities for individual and mutual advantage. Jack is pursuing educational development, not psychoanalysis, although his talents are saturated, it seems to me, with psychological insight about how individuals feel and what their motives are. His consistent emphasis on educational development as opposed to self-analysis - but on the links with one's inner life to potential educational practices and enquiry - meant that I gradually learnt to focus more and more clearly on what it was I was pursuing in the name of education.


Jack set clear boundaries in his supervision of my Ph.D. programme. These boundaries were to do with responsibility and ownership. My belief is that the degree of mental health of an individual is precisely analogous to the state of an individual's boundaries surrounding responsibility and ownership. And in order to pursue my own educational development I needed to become more clear about what it was I was responsible for, both as a human being and as an educator. It isn't that Jack divides the two, but he influenced me to see the complex nature of those boundaries and work out for myself over time how I stood in relation to them. This was my process, not his. The difference was that I needed to make changes. Jack helped me to help myself. That for me, was his great contribution to my development, which has had the result of harnessing more of my creativity and originality towards the world than I was capable of before. Through his influence, and my own very hard work and belief in my own worthwhileness and potential, I was able to learn that it isn't the gifts you get that count, but the gifts you can offer yourself and others. Jack's supervision is a form of alchemy.


So, from my Ph.D studies I launched myself with much greater confidence and sense of mission into my role as teacher and researcher in Oldfield School. I felt confident about my own boundaries - about what was mine and what wasn't. Again, it's not linear this kind of process.


2000, Early May. I'm sitting in Oldfield, in the Great Hall, watching the girls as they write in an English Literature examination, heads bent, some biting the tips of their pens in concentration, others looking up and catching my eye at times and smiling, and I feel this enormous rush of love for them. It's comfortable. It's idyllic for those moments. The calm, the studious hush, the beauty of all the girls, a sense of loving protection.


2000 Late May: I'm sitting on a train returning from my father's funeral, and suddenly, I know that I have to do something more challenging. Take more responsibility because I can. These words express the simplicity on the other side of complexity, but essentially this is exactly what happened. One moment, destination Bath. The next moment, destination China as a VSO volunteer.


No 'cause and effect' here, but a logic that was growing (Laidlaw, 2004). If I had learnt what I had learnt then what I wanted to do was logical. It was the right time for me to take more responsibility. Because I could. Because my life was leading me there. Not to follow that insight, would for me have been self-betrayal. To be true to myself meant following through, not just knowing cognitively. It was, as I see it, a very logical progression from what I learnt as a Ph.D. student with Jack. The values of responsibility, with their associated values of love and a sense of awe about the human condition (Laidlaw, 1996) and about living as a human being amongst human beings, meant doing more consistently in line with my values as they were developing.


In my Ph.D. I set up the idea of living and developmental standards of judgement - or values - and one of the key values I work with is responsibility and all that entails, and therefore I 'had to' go to China. The last sentence, which makes perfect sense for me, shows, however, the innate problem of linking cause and effect in human agency. For me it was inevitable. It was unstoppable. I can trace that conclusion back to the insights developing through my Ph.D. and my increasing awareness. It galvanised me and harnessed my most life-affirming energies. But Jack wasn't responsible for any of it, although his influence in terms of using AR to empower others, was absolutely part and parcel of the ways in which he influenced me. And now, I was ready to take my understanding and form of life elsewhere and develop something indigenous with others, collaboratively and appropriately in a culturally new setting.


I've spent five and half years in China. Most of them were happy times. I hated the first term (see Laidlaw, 2004b) and I didn't enjoy my secondment to Beijing (no one's fault including mine. I just didn't like the work-style or the city-life).


2001-2006: Creating and holding open a space:

In building up an AR centre in Guyuan, through working closely with my wonderful dean, Dean Tian Fengjun and other colleagues, over five years from 2001-2006 we have established a space. This space isn't radically different in terms of the context it occupies in the hegemonic dynamics of politics and truth from the one the AR group here in Bath occupies within the university and academic world (Li and Laidlaw, 2006; Whitehead, 1993). Both spaces have been created and were possible because they offered something that could help to empower individuals and groups in their educational development. Both of the dominant cultures seemed uneasy with academic innovation and status (Whitehead, 1993; Tian and Laidlaw, 2006). Both spaces have been surrounded by dominant spaces with axes to grind, which can become opposed to the kinds of freedom and nurturing capacities required by such innovations we are supporting. At the University of Bath, Jack has held open a space to encourage new ways of educational thinking, acting, evaluating, theorising, improving practice and so on. At Ningxia Teachers University we are holding open a space to encourage critical thinking, self-evaluation and enquiry learning. Our reputation in the northwest of China is steadily growing and achieving momentum.


The understanding of the importance of holding open a space is something I learnt with Jack as a student, and which Dean Tian is politically very astute about. I don't claim here that Jack's space is like my space, or our space, but that the processes of enquiry themselves seem to require holding open a space for learning and development. That's what I learnt. Enquiry from the heart and the soul as well as the mind requires a space in which all those aspects can flower and integrate. I think my Ph.D. really helped me to see the value and influences of context on knowledge, practice and theorising. I am NOT saying that the space in Ningxia Teachers University is an extension of Bath University's AR space, just as I am not saying that my Ph.D. content, conclusions and so on, belong to anyone but myself. But there are links of influence between NTU's AR space and Bath University's. So that was from 2001-2006.


This brings me to 2007. My contract with VSO expired at the end of January. In leaving the organisation I cannot say that the decision was wholly conscious, but I was struck as I was when I first 'decided' to go to China in 2000, with the conviction that there was a further turn on the road of responsibility, which I could take by going back and working with my colleagues to develop the research-base of the new University in Guyuan. It's something of a rationalisation to say that I am going back to help diversify what Guyuan does from what Jack does, but there's something of that in my decision. In 2003 I hit upon the idea of working towards AR with Chinese characteristics. It was a joke at first, in the sense that I had often remarked that China has this wonderful capacity to take an idea from anywhere and render it Chinese somehow. Why not with AR? And then again, seriously, why not with AR? Couldn't this process of creating AR with Chinese characteristics itself be a conduit for empowerment, autonomy, responsibility and intact, healthy boundaries but in a Chinese way in a way that benefited Chinese people in their lives? If, as I and my colleagues freely discuss, that AR helps them to liberate themselves in the name of education, how much more potent might an AR with Chinese characteristics be? Perhaps a space for people to grow in their own best images, as I had had the chance to do? Which increasingly seems to me a human right. A way for Chinese creativity and originality to seed itself, perhaps? As the idea caught hold in the English department, our work became more focused and we started to publish more (Li, 2005; Ma, 2005; Gong, 2005, Tian and Laidlaw, 2006; Liu Xia, 2006).


As a VSO volunteer I was committed to sustainable development and saw myself as needing to get out soon in order to leave my colleagues to it. To develop the kind of autonomy that I had seen for myself in my own educational development was so crucial to ownership and responsibility. Then Jean and Jack visited each for the second time in 2006 and Jean asked about us convening a Ph.D. programme? The boundaries changed from that moment. I saw myself as having a new job, a new horizon, a new role to play. We are still hoping this may happen, but the funding is proving elusive. And such was the timing that returning or not, I was now obligated to go to Beijing for six months to work in the VSO office on AR enquiries and monitoring and evaluation. (Luo, 2007).


So why am I returning to Guyuan now if, as is quite possible, we won't have an immediate Ph.D. programme? Because now I won't be going back as a volunteer but as an independent. This means I give up certain rights and become bound by the contract laws of China. I have to trust my organisation more. It will be more difficult for me to bail out. Why am I doing this? This isn't my responsibility, is it? I don't know, but it's logical - to me. In going back as one of them (although that isn't ever quite going to be the case, given my high foreigner's status and British passport, I understand that) I am giving myself to this AR with Chinese characteristics set of values, because I feel it's right. I feel it's appropriate. I feel it's my destiny. When I'm planning this or working on it, or contacting my colleagues and friends about it and my life in Guyuan from next month, I feel elated. I feel properly used! I feel this is what I am made to do. The crucible of my educational development enabled me to find a conscious voice through Jack's supervision and my own endeavours in overcoming the pain of truth and realisation about my responsibilities in the world.


My timetabled responsibilities are manifold from March onwards. I will be taking some graduate classes in methodology, but will spend most of my time with individuals and groups in the development of their own AR with Chinese characteristics as well as helping others to develop the skills required to facilitate AR. We are a new university now, at the bottom of the Chinese universities' ladder, with a mission statement to be a beacon of light and of learning to the northwest of China as well as fulfilling our academic duties to the students themselves. I want to be more involved in the lives of the people (hence my self-taught reading of Chinese to Agatha-Christie-in-translation level!) I will hope to be supervising academic processes of AR with Chinese characteristics, knowing that I don't want to follow my own teachers or teacher-researchers, but help others to become the best they can be.


I have spent a lot of my time in the last seventeen years working on the development of my Living Educational Theory (LET). This has manifested itself in the 'China' years as the promotion of LET there as well. In seeking to refine my ability to supervise LET with colleagues and students (which will become a part of my own educational development and theorising as well of course) I seek to further the kind of values of developing appropriate responsibilities and engendering the kinds of spaces and contexts that lend themselves to enquiry, learning, evaluation, and praxis, a melding of practice and theory. I do not seek to create a Bath satellite, but to work with others on programmes of educational development that serve their local, national and international needs. I believe this work to be a small fragment of a huge mosaic, to which we add a glint of gold each time we work out how to improve our practice, 'how to make the possible probable' (Whitehead, 2003).


As I look at the landscape of my life now I realise that my journey is punctuated by sunshine in the day and lamplight at night. I have been lucky. I have come to a place inside and outside that I value. This constitutes for me my own educational development. My ability to take it forward to others more consistently and more devotedly is a mark, I believe, of my taking of responsibility.


I don't want to overstate this, but it's important it's not misunderstood. It is not because of Jack that I do what I do, or for Jack either, but it is with him to an extent, because he continues to hold open that space at Bath for me (as he does for so many others) as I and others do for him and Jean, for example, at Guyuan. In working on this brief paper, I sent a draft to Jack for his comments as I know he will always be interested in the work I am doing. This quality of interest in the other is another of Jack's supervisory talents. He wrote this in response on 18th February:


I was thinking why do I think that Maggie Farrens research is world leading and mine is definitely internationally recognised and a case could be made that it is internationally excellent in relation to the generation and testing of living educational theories. The difference is that Maggie has systemically integrated the processes of supporting the creation of living educational theories within her workplace. I think Jackie did this in developing a culture of inquiry and you are doing this at CECEARFLT and through your intentions to support the development of a masters programme and doctoral research at Ninxgia teachers university. I think you have a passion to support individuals in the expression of their originality in creating their own living educational theories and express a scholarly passion in enabling the practitioner-researchers you work with to develop their understandings about how to enhance the validity and rigour of their research accounts. I also see you stressing the importance of recognising, in the living theories, the significance of the enquiry for the individual, for others, for China and for the world.

They may be Jack's words, but he has authentically expressed my own sense of what it is I am doing and intend to do. In understanding the other, in taking an interest, in nurturing, sometimes guiding and always listening to the other, I hope to continue the kinds of professional relationships with my colleagues of the kind I myself first experienced as liberation and empowerment as a Ph.D. student with Jack. In returning to Guyuan I have a sense of strength and of excitement, mission and of obligation. In fact, those four elements seem all the same to me these days. I hope in the future to continue sharing ideas and together with colleagues and students in developing an educational basis in the new university. Dean Tian recently talked to me (January 2007) about possibilities for international collaboration, that he sees as key in this process, and I paraphrase his comments from notes I took afterwards:


When we have scholars visiting us we see the world better. We gain perspective. We can learn from them and they can help us to build a strong foundation. We are proud to be associated with Professor Jean McNiff and Dr. Jack Whitehead and Professor Moira Laidlaw. These experts have vastly helped us to increase our understanding about education and development. Sustainable development is important in our project. We want to build an excellent foundation here at NTU. We want to improve the quality of education. We believe there is a link between this and building a better society. We welcome our international friends to help us in this great task.


I am proud to be working with my dear colleagues again - Dean Tian, Li Peidong, Liu Xia and others at the university, and colleagues such as Ma Yangui and Mr. Gao at the Hui Middle School in Haiyuan. I count myself the lucky one! Guyuan, here I come…


Gong, L., (2006), 'How can I help two young students improve their speaking?' in McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) Everything You Need To Know About Action Research, London, Sage.

Laidlaw, M., (1996), 'How can I create my own living educational theory as I account for my educational development?' Ph.D. thesis, Bath University, at:

Laidlaw, M., (1997), In Loco parentis with Sally: a matter of fairness and love', at: Retrieved on 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., 2000, 'How can I continue to improve the quality of my provision of particular Equal Opportunities values in my teaching of English to a Year Eight group?' at: last retrieved on 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., (2001), 'What has the Holocaust got to do with education anyway?' pre-China paper for the Bath AR group at:  Retrieved on 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., (2004a), 'An description of my own logic', paper given at Bath University AR group at: Last retrieved on 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., (2004b), 'How can I promote sustainable development in our Centre and beyond?' at: Last retrieved on 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., (2006), How Might We Enhance the Educational Value of our Research-base at the New University in Guyuan? Researching Stories for the Social Good. Inaugural Professorial Lecture by Moira Laidlaw Ningxia Teachers University, 13 June 2006, at: Last retrieved 20th February, 2007.

Laidlaw, M., Lomax, P., & Whitehead, J., (1994), 'Accounting for ourselves: papers from the third world conference n Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management', Bath University. Erica Holley first had the idea that the theme of the world conference should be accounting for ourselves.

Li, P., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'Curriculum Change in rural China', Action Research Journal, Vol. 6, no 3.

Liu, X., (2006), 'How can I help my students to learn through respect and encouragement?', in McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) Everything You Need To Know About Action Research, London, Sage.

Luo, L., (2007), 'How can I improve my understanding of professionality?' VSO Beijing central office, data-archives.

Ma, H., (2006), 'How can I help my students with their reading comprehension?' in McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) Everything You Need To Know About Action Research, London, Sage.

McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) Everything You Need To Know About Action Research, London, Sage.

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

Whitehead, Jack, (1993), 'The Growth of Educational Knowledge', Hyde Publications, Dorset.

Whitehead, Joan, (2003), Keynote address to the Standing Committee for the  Education and Training of Teachers Annual Conference 3rd-4th October  2003, Dunchurch. 'The Future of Teaching and Teaching in the  Future: a vision of the future of the profession of teaching - Making the Possible Probable'. Retrieved 17 February 2007 from

Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory, London; Sage.





[1] This puts me strongly in mind of Jean McNiff's recent posting to the BERA e-list about ownership of her own LET. When we have gone through the process of this kind of supervision, one of the key points is this growing awareness of our own individual ownership that evolves from our own creativity and originality, which cannot causally be claimed by anyone else, including Jack.