Published papers

Moira Laidlaw: Towards a more helpful framing of my practice

Picture of Moira Laidlaw
A response to my paper by Ben Cunningham
by Moira Laidlaw - Monday, 12 October 2015, 10:00 PM

Ealier today, Ben Cunningham, a friend of mine from my Bath days, who gained his Ph.D. with Jack Whitehead in 1999 with the title, 'How do I come to know my spirituality as I create my own living educational theory?' wrote a response to my paper. He has given me permission to reproduce it here. I am very touched by his insights and the way in which he has written his review. Thank you, Ben. (By the way, Ben's Ph.D. thesis can be found at: 

“How I am trying to lead the best possible life:  towards a more helpful framing of my practice.” 

EJOLTS paper by Moira Laidlaw

A Partial Response by Ben Cunningham, 12.10.15.

In your Abstract to your new EJOLTS paper I read that your practice and theorising are now being infomed by a new development since you framed them for EJOLTS in 2008 and 2012. Your new contextualisation is informed by an emphasis on conscientisation (Freire, 2005). You rightly look at your paid and voluntary employment prior to 2013 and report on your expanding net of concerns through a growing understanding of the systemic, social and political influences partly in your work with a Ph.D. student you are supervising and how this has affected both the scope and nature of your work. You further illustrate this by looking at your charity work, and the tuition you offer in English and German to Polish students in the light of the European Migrant Crisis. You also characterise your account as part of your living legacy (Forester, 2015) as you account to yourself about how you are leading the best possible life. You conclude that ‘conscientisation’ has become a living standard of judgement in the evaluation of your work in the service of humanity as you seek to live a better life in the direction of your values of love, compassion and now, conscientisation and because of the latter, among other things, you believe that you are now contributing to Living Theory as a social movement (Coombes, Potts and Whitehead, 2014).

In your Introduction you frame your current work as a Living Theorist through a lens that reflects its greater conscientisation (Freire, 2015) using Ledwith’s (2005) definition of the term, as:

... the process of becoming a critical thinker and unpacking dominant thought and oppressive thought which results from the cycle of socialization. (p. 52) ... [It] is the process whereby people become aware of the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that interact in a hegemonic way to diminish their lives. (p. 97).

Below are some random thoughts of mine that, hopefully, will not obfuscate what you have done and may help in some way. In my response to it, Taylor (1993, p. 52) helps me with some of his ideas. He emphasises that Freire denies that “objectivity is created by consciousness, as if, somehow, we could transform reality through speech alone, through convictions alone: ‘I cannot transform the world inside my consciousness’. Freire (1975d, p. 3), does claim, however, that radical social transformation, revolution is, in itself, an educational process. He goes on to say that: ‘It is naive to continue to insist that by education we can transform reality.’ But elsewhere (1972b, pp. 180-1), he says that: ‘Education ... is an act of knowing and a means of action for transforming the reality which is to be known’.

You point out, Moira, that in your previous EJOLTS papers you emphasised more the ontological than the systemic influences on your practice. But now, conscientisation broadens your educational work in your efforts at enablement of others. I believe, however, that your work  seamlessly welds together both ontology and conscientisation.

Let me start with the ontological argument and with Yamamoto’s (ibid.) quotation from Buber (1965, p. 98), who says we ought to: “Trust, trust in the world, because the human being exists – that is the most inward achievement of the relation in education. ... Because this human being exists: therefore he (teacher) must be really there, really facing the child, not mererly there in spirit.” You seem to have always done that, Moira. Perhaps conscientisation unnoticed was also being done by you even then, though you may not have been aware of it earlier in your work. Freire (1970h, p. 212) seems to me to bring together the notion of ontology and conscientisation in the following phrase, when he says that:

Insofar as learning is impossible without thought, and language and thought are impossible without the world to which they refer, the human word is more than mere vocabulary, it is word-and-action.”  

Perhaps, Moira, ontology and conscientisation can come together in the phrase word-and-action, if lived in practice?

Commenting further on Freire, Taylor (1993, p. 55) says that Freire in his book ‘To Know and to Be (1979), does not distinguish between epistemology and ontology, that is, knowing and being. For him, the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’, becomes ‘I know therefore I am’. He apparently viewed cognitive development as personal development. In the light of this understanding perhaps the more important question to ask is this: what kind of reality must a teacher or learner be able to see? What is it that they need to know, so that they can engage in a relationship which is not oppressive? You have answered these questions in my view, Moira, in your “creation of spaces for the freedom for children to learn” (Rogers, 1983). In your essay it seems to me that you have achieved a unity between ontology and conscientisation. It is not a question of opposing one idea with another and you have not done that. You have elegantly united both concepts in your educative work which now includes more overtly the idea and practice of conscientisation, a unity managed with elegance. I believe these ideas are also very well developed not only in your text but also in your Appendices where you re-construct believable actual dialogues around conscientisation that remind us that certain happenings in the world ought never to be forgotten. Your observation of young people and their stances and actions is continually heart-warming. Your essay and my response to it is about conscientisation and in that contxt, among other things, I believe it is not unlike Levinas’ philosophy that de-centres the subject, the ‘I’, and acknowledges that meaning is not so much achieved by the subject, the ‘I’, as it is from the other, including the poor (Levinas, 1969). His philosophy, among other things, is about decentering myself, surely a helpful attitude to possess in a process of conscientisation. Levinas says that:

I am defined as a subjectivity, as a singuar person, as an ‘I’ precsiely because I am exposed to the other. It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I’. (Dialogues, 62-63).

In contrast to a philosophy that focuses the quest for meaning and values on the individual autonomous subject, Levinas proposes a philosophy that de-centres the subject and acknowledges that meaning is not so much achieved by the subject as received from another:

For me, the freedom of the subject is not the highest or primary value. The heteronomy of our response to the human other, or to God as the absolute other precedes the autonomy of our subjective freedom ... I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I affirm my freedom not to respond to his demand. (Dialogues, 63).

As examples of the primacy of love / care for the other, of conscientisation in practice, I extract sections from your Appendix that begins, as follows:

The teacher stood up and walked over to the world map that covered the whole of one wall. ‘In 1942 it had been taken over by the Nazis. Who can remember who the Nazis were? Hands up, don’t shout!’

She looked round at the sea of waving hands and picked on Alison.

‘The Nazis were the baddies in the war, Miss,’ she said simply.

‘Yes, they were, but why?’

‘Because they tried to take over the world,’ said Samuel.

‘Yes they did. Anything else?’


‘Well, this story is about the answer. It’s a story about good and evil. I want you to listen carefully. You might never hear a more important story in your life, but I think you’re grown-up enough for it.’

The children in the appendix story looked at photos and Robert chose:

 “the one with the soldiers shooting the children.’ All the children followed Miss Warski’s movements as she got up from her chair and retrieved the picture from the wall, pulling it easily away from the blu-tak. She handed it to him.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘They’re enjoying it. They’re killing these children and they’re enjoying it.’ What had begun with Rob relishing the horror, ended with his realisation of what was actually happening. His voice lost the swagger.”

Further on in this story there is the moral:

If you’re happy you don’t want to kill anyone. And we have to learn how to control our darker feelings, because if we don’t,’ and she swept her hand in a gesture to include all the pictures on the wall, ‘I have to control them with you lot every day.’ 

Similar ideas arise in Appendix Two: The Train Journey where you are directly involved revealing your thoughts, feelings and values as you both observe and speak with other passengers. Charlie, a young man tells you he wants to work with Medicine Sans Frontieres because, in his words:

'I've had everything given to me. I want to give something back. My parents have made me and my sister the purpose of their lives' (the dad's eyes were watery at this point), 'and I want to give back to the world because I am so lucky.' His eyes shone. I have no doubt of his abilities and his sincerities.

On the same train journey you had an experience of a boy wishing to sit near you. As you say:

The next thing I knew, he'd come to sit next to me. He wanted a cuddle. It was etched all through him, 'I need love', riven like the words in stick of rock. Then his mother came and dragged him off his seat, leaving the train without seeing if he was following. I whispered to him before he that he was special and must never forget that.  

In your Appendix to your paper you rightly wish, Moira, to show how ‘conscientisation’ is becoming one of your living standards of judgement (Laidlaw, 1996) in relation to the work you carry out in the name of the flourishing of humanity (Briganti, 2015). I don’t believe that you undervalued other spheres of influence in your teaching life but that you, perhaps, now believe that you did not then bring them together in a coherent whole, as you are doing now, in order to represent what was already dormant within you and within your relationships with your students. Evidence for this is to be seen not only in your Appendices but also in your work for the Open University, tutoring on Development Management Masters modules, for Scope, and the informal work with piano lessons that you do with various young people; the work you do with three immigrants, two of whom work as pharmacists, one of whom you are teaching to play the piano; to another studying Academic English for entry to a second M.Sc. programme. You are also keeping in mind the current migrant crisis affecting Europe at the time of writing and how it impacts on your sense of the significance of conscientisation for your practice as a national and international educator. You are conscious of the significance of your growing conscientsiation in terms of the values emerging locally, nationally and internationally in answer to the question, ‘how am I leading the best possible life?’

Recently a simple but very human recent event occurred, that reminds us again of educational values we cherish, including conscientisation,  at least to some extent. I refer to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Though not a teacher in the accepted sense, the  words and deeds of such politicians need not to be neglected in our educational endeavours. Corbyn is a national figure now and is somebody who believes that the poor and the less privileged matter, that they matter more than retention of methods of self-destruction. With Corbyn, many people for a moment at least can forget about the ‘importance’ of greed, forget about the necessity to attain power and, instead, see a human being, a humble one, full of belief in the downtrodden; one who will not be persuaded that others, for example, the wealthy, are as important as those who find it difficult to face each day and even the desire to continue living perhaps.

Corbyn believes that young people and others and, indeed, whoever and wherever we are, old people too, and the downtrodden must rise up again from their knees and shout: “we are still alive and this time we want you to notice. We want your conscience to be pricked. We don’t want to oppose you, but we want you to know that we are possessors of the same world as yourself. We count for something. Maybe we’re not as clever as you are. Maybe we’re not as educated as you are. Maybe we don’t have wealth. But we sure know what it means to be despised; to be counted as nothing in the eys of so many of our fellow human beings.” But, along comes someone, perhaps mild and unassuming, and to him, ao many people who previously did not matter, now do matter.

Though not yourself operating in what we commonly understand as the political sphere, Moira, what happens elsewhere, including schools and colleges, are important to the health of a nation.  So, what hapens between you and your students that is important to the health of the nation? In attempting an answer I’m going to link you, temporarily, with Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because I believe that, like you, Corbyn believes in being a fully-paid up member of the human race. What is extraordinary is only in that he says what he believes, as you do, Moira. He preaches only what he practises and has remained constant and consistent in defending his views against all comers. To be as concscientious as Corbyn seems to me to be is because he has a sense of how to combat oppression and his arguments can easily be seen to be ones to do with love, faith, hope and humility, all values inherent in your teaching and communication with others, Moira. So, conscientisation expressed in those terms seems to me to be about a process of humanisation within which we fulfil our ‘ontological vocation’. What you believe, Moira, and Corbyn too, does not sound totally dissimilar to Living Theory, which is about about active reflection followed by action, for the sake of those with whom we work. In your meeting, teaching and conversing with others, you exhibit the conscience that informs your actions. Though you say in your Introduction, Moira, that you have undervalued ‘conscientisation’, I believe it was always inherent in what you said and did, but perhaps not consciously so, but is present now consciously and by choice.

What distinguishes your work, Moira, isn’t just the subject matter – although it is present of course – but especially your total concentration for the good of the recipients of how education could improve their lives, lives that would “reveal happy and confident young people with an awareness of how they learned and a delight in doing so.” You may have thought your teaching delivered as much as it could until you received an unsolicited message on Facebook from a student you had once taught and who wrote to you saying: “.... you showed me that poetry mattered morally.” I know it’s not a victory narrative, as you put it, Moira, but wouldn’t many teachers metaphorically die for such a response from a former student? Not only was there – and still is - rapport between yourself and your student but real learning, a learning that is so deep that it almost takes one’s breath away: Poetry could influence one’s life and it did for this former student!!!

As I’m thinking of your influence with your students, Moira, I am also thinking of your identification with them and they with you. This idea is what Anthony Storr (1960, p. 87) points to when he says that:

“(the student) will ... tend to identify himself with people who appeal to him and who may play a valuable role in his development by evoking aspects of his personality which might otherwise lie latent.”

Conscientisation for you and me as teachers, starts with what we are obligated to do, that is, teaching, but such teaching is an exercise that enables students to mature psychologically, as Huxley (1933, p. 99) puts it when he says that:

The most that we can hope to do is to train every individual to realize all his potentialties and become completely himself.

Though I would not now use the word ‘train’, as in the above quotation, I do recognise that you do enable your students to mature and that now you are also enabling them to achieve conscientisation. In order to attain those objectives, you work at enabling your students to attain maturity by helping them to be assertive about what is right and proper and by your  affirmation of their personalities (Storr, 1960, p. 58).

As part of your work of conscientisation with your students, you encourage the emergence of their personalities (your Appendices and other essays bear this out). You believe that they have a right, among other things, to expect to grow and develop as mature individuals because of your work with them. This wouldn’t be antithetical either to a desire to cultivate within your students the idea of conscientisation – in fact you do it all the time, I believe. A part of that consientisation starts maybe with an idea I came across in St. Augustine, when he said:

“For I was: I was alive: I could feel: I could guard my personality, the imprint of that mysterious unity from which my being was derived.” 

Building on some such premiss perhaps, there was between 1989 and 2001 for you, Moira:

 “...the beginnings of a more socially-oriented view of knowledge, theory, educational development and practice, with the publication of two articles (Laidlaw, 1994a, 1994b) and my doctorial thesis (Laidlaw, 1996). All three texts show a gradual movement towards an awareness that social structures influence learning, and that education always takes place within some sort of social context. “

You have more than amply referred to these ideas in your pages 8 and 9 with Hayley’s work on Blake. On page 9 you give another example that took place in China with a class of 102 teacher-education students for Teaching Methodology in English when your clip shows shows someting of your commitment to make contact with as many students as possible before they left the room. Such efforts at good personal relations have to be something that is a sine qua non for teachers. Students can hardly learn anything more important that being ‘noticed’ by a good teacher. Surely a sign of conscientisation at work. But with you, Moira, there is more. There is love, a love that requires knowledge and effort. It is not love that requires one to be loved, but it is about loving, loving the other (Fromm, 1962, p. 2). How can one read your Text and Appendices without discovering that?  



Augustine, St. (1961) Confessions, transl. London: R.S. Pine-Coffin.

Buber, M (1965) Between man and man. New York: Macmillan In Yamamoto, K. (2001) To See Life Grow: The Meaning of Mentorship.

Freire, P. (1970h) ‘The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom’, Harvard Educational Review, 40: 3, 205-25.

Freire, P. (1975e) An Invitation to Conscientization and Deschooling: Geneva. World Council of Churches.

Freire, P. (1979) ‘To Know and To Be’ Indian Journal of Youth Affairs, June.

Fromm, E. (1962, p. 2) The Art of Loving. London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd.

Huxley, A. (1933) Proper Studies. Chatto and Windus.

Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity, transl. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Storr, A. (1960) The Integrity of the Personality. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Taylor, Paul V. (1993) The Texts of Paulo Freire. Buckingham: Open University Press.