Virtuous Educational Research

Conversations on Ethical Practice

by Julian Stern (Author)
©2016 Monographs X, 249 Pages
Series: Religion, Education and Values, Volume 9


This is a book of conversations with researchers working across Europe, the USA and Africa. It aims to illuminate the lived reality of educational research on a wide variety of topics, including family life in rural South Africa, support for self-harming students in the UK, character development in the USA and Korea, educational leadership in the UK and China, philosophical analysis of education policy, and much more.
The book is for and about researchers and is built around a set of conversations with the author – a fellow researcher. Researchers work at the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding of the world, and frontiers can be dangerous places. How are the researchers’ personal qualities – virtues such as courage, honesty and kindness – tested and exemplified in their work? The conversations presented here explore the experience of research and ask what qualities are needed, or wished for, in order to successfully face its challenges. There are many books that include lists of what to do and what not to do when carrying out research. Here, in contrast, we find out what really happens and why – and what it takes to keep going.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Part I Remembering Virtue
  • Chapter 1 Introduction: From Ethics to Virtues
  • Part II Starting the Conversation
  • Chapter 2 Conversation in Philosophy: The Rational and the Reasonable
  • Philosophy in Action: A Conversation with Morwenna Griffiths
  • Producing Better People: A Conversation with Nel Noddings
  • Chapter 3 Integrity and Sincerity
  • Competing Moral Principles: A Conversation with Ron Best
  • Thinking Myself Into the World: A Conversation with Helen Lees
  • Chapter 4 Inside Out: Orthodoxy and its Alternatives in Educational Research
  • Am I Just Hiding Behind a Tradition?: A Conversation with Mario D’Souza
  • A Bit of a Nomad: A Conversation with Anne Pirrie
  • Part III Building Relationships
  • Chapter 5 It’s Not Therapy, But …
  • The Evidence Should Provoke Some Kind of Feelings in People: A Conversation with Mike Bottery
  • I Wanted to Keep on Learning: A Conversation with Lander Calvelhe
  • Chapter 6 Just Work: Professing as Professor and as Professional
  • I Call it Work: A Conversation with Jean McNiff
  • To Build Relationships: A Conversation with Jacqui Akhurst
  • Chapter 7 Taking Time: Prudence and Pacing
  • We Intervene Too Soon: A Conversation with Shanaaz Hoosain
  • Learning to Live With Difference: A Conversation with Sr Agnes Wilkins
  • Part IV Sustainable Researchers
  • Chapter 8 Courage Enough: The Need to Support and Be Supported
  • Part of my Being: A Conversation with Lāsma Latsone
  • Research is Messy: A Conversation with Lynne Gabriel
  • Chapter 9 99 Per Cent Perspiration: The Virtues of Hard Work
  • Re-Imagining the Way we See Children: A Conversation with Chris Sink
  • You Should Not be Too Practical or Nice: A Conversation with Fedor Kozyrev
  • Chapter 10 A Curious Life: Research as Legacy
  • Time is my Worst Enemy: A Conversation with Ginger MacDonald
  • I’ve Had to be Very Brave: A Conversation with Helen Gunter
  • Part V Facing the Future of Educational Research
  • Chapter 11 Portraits of Researchers
  • Chapter 12 Conclusion: Educational Research in Learning Communities
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →


This is the first book of its kind about virtuous educational research, a book of researchers working in the UK (in England and Scotland), mainland Europe (Latvia, Russia and Spain), North America (Canada and the USA), and South Africa. They illuminate the lived reality of educational research – research on family life in rural South Africa, support for self-harming students in the UK, character development in the US and Korea, educational leadership in the UK and China, philosophical analysis of education policy, and much more. The book is built around a set of conversations. This way of presenting researchers is in part derived from the pattern set by Bryan Magee, in his conversations with contemporary philosophers (Magee 1971, 1978). The views of researchers are explored in discussion with me – a fellow-researcher. Although these could be described as ‘interviews’, they are more collaborative and therefore conversational than conventional interviews.

This book is for and about researchers themselves. Researchers work at the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding of the world, and frontiers can be dangerous places. How are the researchers’ personal qualities – the virtues such as courage, honesty, and kindness – tested and exemplified in contemporary research? For all the work on research ethics in master’s and doctoral degrees, and in the training of academic staff, researchers find that they face unexpected challenges – the challenges inherent in the process of research. Researchers talk about their experience of research and what qualities are needed – or wished for – to face the challenges of research. Virtuous Educational Research gives research a human face or, rather, a number of human faces: none perfect, but all prepared to explain what it takes to complete research. This book is an invitation to join a conversation of practitioners. There are many books that have lists of what to do and what not to do. Here, we find out what happens and why – and what it takes to keep going. ← ix | x →

Contributing interest in the project, and contributing the majority of the conversationalists, is a set of networks each of which involves international conferences or seminars with which I have been involved. One network has been created by the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conferences, held annually from 2011 at York St John University (<http://www.yorksj.ac.uk/value&virtue>). A second is the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values (ISREV, <http://www.isrev.org>), which has been meeting every two years since 1978, and has a concern with high-level research on some of the most challenging issues in education. The third of the networks is the Social and Moral Fabric of the School series, held roughly every two years since the early 1990s, led by the University of Hull, Seattle Pacific University, the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and York St John University.

I would like to acknowledge the considerable support from others involved in the project, including Mike Bottery (for commenting on drafts of several chapters, as well as his own), Leslie Francis and his colleagues (as series editors), Emily Morrissey (for transcription and for conversations about each transcription), participants in all the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conferences (where I tested out some of my ideas), staff and students of York St John University (who commented on presentations of three of the conversations), and Marie Stern (who worked on the whole manuscript). Each of the ‘conversationalists’ made the book what it is, in the initial conversations and in correspondence and discussion before and since, and my biggest thanks therefore go to them. In the order in which we had our discussions (from September 2014 to September 2015), they are Chris Sink, Jean McNiff, Fedor Kozyrev, Mario D’Souza, Mike Bottery, Helen Lees, Ginger MacDonald, Jacqui Akhurst, Anne Pirrie, Helen Gunter, Morwenna Griffiths, Lāsma Latsone, Nel Noddings, Ron Best, Lynne Gabriel, Sr Agnes Wilkins, Shanaaz Hoosain, and Lander Calvelhe.

The book is dedicated to John, who won’t read the book, and Marie, who did.

Julian Stern

January 2016

← x | 1 →


Remembering Virtue

It is easy to forget virtue. In professional work – professional research, professional education, or any other professional field – reason and regulation, codes of conduct and job descriptions, responsibilities and accountabilities, all give the impression of clarity and rationality. All give the impression that the work requires commitment and effort, but not – not so much – virtue. Talk of virtue makes people think of ‘preachiness’ and of being ‘moralistic’. Defining it as ‘the cultivation of a set of dispositions conducive to good character’, and saying that ‘human beings became good by consistently doing good things and avoiding bad things’ (Arthur 2010, p. 3) may help a little, but then begs the question ‘What do you mean by “good”?’ This is described by Nel Noddings in Chapter 2 as part of an ‘interminable discussion’ of what makes people better. Even though the discussion will never terminate, we need to remember to join in the discussion. There is an expectation that work is done ‘right’, but we rarely argue over whether the people doing the work are ‘good’. That seems just too intrusively personal, and too, well, arguable. So virtue is forgotten, goodness is forgotten: both replaced by performance measured in outcomes, obedience disguised as productivity, evidence presented as understanding. Remembering virtue means remembering that the character and the personal strengths of a professional matter. It means remembering that all the regulations in the world will not ensure that professional work is truly ethical, or will contribute to the good society. People will be more or less virtuous or vicious, and remembering this, and arguing about this, will encourage virtue and discourage vice, and remind people that they do – almost inevitably – want to make the world a better place. ← 1 | 2 →

← 2 | 3 →


Introduction: From Ethics to Virtues

Remembering Virtue

My brother-in-law, John D’Albert, is suffering from dementia as a result of Pick’s disease. He didn’t lose words at first, but decision-making skills. Gradually, many cognitive skills have left him, and now there are almost no words left. However, in his actions, in his physicality, he demonstrates so many of his continuing personal qualities, his personal strengths, including his kindness and his helpfulness. These are retained, even as he doesn’t know how to do things, even as his physical control is disappearing. From John, I’m getting a very different feel about what his, what our, virtues are. His every action is kind and thoughtful, without him having the ability to talk about or understand what he is doing. How embodied virtues and personality are: it’s striking. John’s illness has coincided with the development and writing of this book, and he has contributed the idea that, whatever else may be forgotten, virtues are personal characteristics that can be retained. Virtues are more central to personhood than knowledge, and are more embodied than what might be stated as our values or beliefs.

I began the project that became this book as a way of describing research virtues in order to illuminate the process of research. It has become a book of portraits of people who do research, in which discussion of research illuminates the personal characteristics – the virtues and strengths, the temptations and challenges – of nineteen people, including me. It is a more personal book than I had expected it to be: ‘personal’ in the sense of exploring personhood itself, rather than personal in the sense of ‘confessional’. And it ‘voices’ the conversationalists more than I had initially expected. Having completed a wide range of what is called ‘empirical’ research over ← 3 | 4 → the years (such as Stern 2009a, 2010, 2013a, 2014a, Stern and Backhouse 2011), I have made use of the voices of research participants, alongside voices of published authors, in my explorations of education. However, the more I worked on the transcripts of the conversations for this book, the more I realised that presenting each conversation in a dialogic form, the more the voices of each person shone through. I had avoided creating an edited book, with each chapter written by a different author, because of the challenge that this creates in achieving a coherent narrative. Yet by presenting the conversations in the way I have chosen for this book, I seem to hear the ‘real’ voices of the conversationalists – more real, that is, than I hear when reading their own publications. By ‘real’, I mean in part that I recognise the person I know, and in part I sense they are engaged in what Buber refers to as ‘real’ dialogue, in contrast to ‘technical’ dialogue (the exchange of information) and ‘monologue disguised as dialogue’ (Buber 2002, p. 22).


X, 249
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Educational research Education policy Conversation about educational research Family life in rural South Africa
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 249 pp.

Biographical notes

Julian Stern (Author)

Julian Stern is Professor of Education and Religion at York St John University. After fourteen years as a school teacher, he worked at the UCL Institute of Education, the Open University, Brunel University and the University of Hull prior to his current position. He has published twelve books and numerous articles, covering topics as diverse as homework, spirituality, pedagogy and the involvement of parents in schooling. He is also General Secretary of ISREV, the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values, as well as Secretary of the John Macmurray Fellowship and a Director and Trustee of the Centre for Global Education, York.


Title: Virtuous Educational Research
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