Living Contradiction

A teacher's examination of tension and disruption in schools, in classrooms and in self

By: Sean Warren , Stephen Bigger


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Size: 234 x 156mm
Pages : 336
ISBN : 9781785831775
Format: Paperback
Published: August 2017

Describes how one teacher lost himself in his rigid commitment to upholding standards, and charts his research-led journey to find a better way.

Co-authored by Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger, Living Contradiction: A teacher's examination of tension and disruption in schools, in classrooms and in self charts Warren's journey as an experienced and successful teacher who lost himself in his rigid commitment to upholding standards, and documents his research to find a better way.

Values are in vogue in education: they are stated in school policies across the land. They are a list of what the school wants people to think about them and their educational aims – that they are caring, effective, and ethical in rooting pedagogy and all educational processes in positive relationships between teachers and pupils. Amidst the reality of classroom life, however, the very best of intentions can be compromised as the insidious influences of power, pressure, and responsibility come to bear.

In this candid account, presented in the form of a dual narrative, Warren describes how he adopted a persona infused with control and intolerance as his authoritarian approach to suppressing conflict in the secondary school classroom became increasingly incongruent with his personal values and aspirations as an educator. Then, through undertaking his action research project and engaging in a process of reconceptualisation under co-author Bigger's mentorship, Warren began to explore how he could redefine his classroom leadership and authenticate his teaching practice – without compromising standards or authority. Living Contradiction investigates the efficacy of Warren's modified approach and tells the story of how he overcame the incessant demands of tension and disruption by becoming 'confident in uncertainty'.

Grappling with both the philosophical and the pragmatic, the authors offer two distinct perspectives in their commentary on Warren's journey – supporting their interspersed critical reflections with thought-provoking insights into the methodology and outcomes of Warren's research project. The book is split into five parts and is punctuated throughout with expert surveying of a wide range of related research that challenges the status quo on the effectiveness of punishment and authoritarianism as approaches to behaviour management. Furthermore, in exploring how schooling should be as much about developing motivated citizens as encouraging qualifications, Living Contradiction goes in search of answers to the question that all educationalists must ask: 'What do we want our education system to do for our children?'

Suitable for teachers, NQTs, and policy makers, Living Contradiction is a resonatory self-examination of teacher identity and a significant contribution to the debate about how schools and classrooms are run.

Contents include:

Part I – Power Over

Part II – Methodological Considerations

Part III – Degrees of Resistance: Low Level Disruptions

Part IV – Power With

Part V – Working with Colleagues

Click here to read blog posts regarding The Living Contradiction, such as review comments, as well as a breakdown of the different stages involved up until the publication of the book.

Picture for author Sean Warren

Sean Warren

Sean Warren PhD began his career in education in 1988. He proceeded to work with young people in Papua New Guinea, Romania and the United States. Back in the UK, his diverse experience incorporated many roles in education. Seans current interest involves the use of technology to inform classroom observation and professional development.

Picture for author Stephen Bigger

Stephen Bigger

Stephen Bigger PhD began his career as a secondary teacher and from 1981 was a lecturer in education in teacher training institutes, in Scarborough, Oxford and Worcester, ending as head of department and head of research in education.

Over that period he produced three books in collaboration with colleagues, made chapter contributions to others and wrote many articles and book reviews.

Click here to read Stephen Bigger’s blog.


  1. Living Contradiction is an extraordinary book about education and also the adverse of it.

    It is full of very powerful arguments and poses the essential question to teachers: 'Is it possible to build good, positive relationships with pupils without sacrificing order and discipline?' At its centre it has a profoundly honest and lucid narrative about the conscious classroom odyssey of a teacher.

    One of its authors, Sean Warren, is also its main protagonist. The book tells his story, how he went to school in East London while living in Coventry Cross Estate, one of the worst estates in Tower Hamlets, and coping with very challenging family circumstances; how he left school at 16 and became a builder's labourer; how through his own determined volition he eventually qualified as a teacher.

    He tells, self-critically, of his embrace of classroom authoritarianism, how he became a champion of behaviourist approaches and 'quick fix solutions' based around zero tolerance, 'assertive discipline' and rigid sanctions, and how he 'patrolled the corridors and had the undiluted support of the head teacher.' He became the exemplar of the New Model Teacher advocated by OFSTED and took on the state-approved and teacher-pressurising role of the'county's behaviour and attendance consultant'. His own practice he describes as 'increasingly draconian' and admits: 'Control.... had come to define me. I was contributing to a climate of fear masquerading as respect.'

    Yet all this power-centredness was having a contradictory effect upon his own psyche, and he began to realise 'in my arrogance there is clear evidence of my administering sovereign power over others. I also actively suppressed myself.' For he began to recognise, what he was demonstrating to others was also gradually pulling him down. 'I psychologically adopted a bullish mask of confidence, assurance and assertiveness. It manifested in my walk and in my stance; it exuded from my personality.'

    Such realisations made him determined to change his methods and behaviour as a teacher, and the book charts Warren's struggle to shake off this authoritarian persona, which he began to understand was destroying any opportunities to achieve a self-activated learning, student cooperation and a democratic classroom. As such it is a teacher's story which is entirely gripping and relevant.

    For me it was a revelation, as 14 year old Sean Warren, now approaching 52, was in my class in Poplar in the late Seventies, and was a powerfully creative student - the co-author with Paul Parris, a black classmate, of a fine anti-racist play called 'Moonlight' which was published by the Inner London
    Education Authority. When we showed it in his dressing room to the great Caribbean actor Norman Beaton (of 'Desmond's' fame), who was performing in Mustapha Matura's play 'Nice' at Theatre Royal, Stratford, E!5, Beaton was strongly impressed by the text and offered his own brand of generous encouragement. 'Keep on keeping on!' he said with a huge smile. It seems that Warren never forgot that, hence this powerful book, some 38 years later. 
  2. An important book that questions an authoritarian school culture.
    The book grapples with both the philosophical and the pragmatic aspects of school culture.
    A resonatory self-examination of teacher identity and a significant contribution to the debate about how schools and classrooms are run.
    A survey of a wide range of related research that challenges the status quo on the effectiveness of punishment and authoritarianism as approaches to behaviour management.

    Click here to read the review on UKEdChat website.
  3. Living Contradiction is the book that I wish I had had when I embarked on a career as a teacher.

    The -˜living contradiction' that is its starting point is painfully familiar to everyone who has stood in a classroom and wondered how they had ended up this way, with the energy-sapping task of keeping order becoming an end in itself. We had thought it was a precondition for learning, and we craved the respect of pupils and colleagues, but we had sacrificed the excitement that brought us into the profession. Sometimes we blamed our pupils for forcing us into an authoritarian role, for not sharing the love of learning that we were so miserably failing to instil in them.

    Warren and Bigger's book breaks out of this sterile dilemma: discipline versus self-expression, strength versus weakness. Warren is no naive idealist, and is well aware that teachers continue to be accountable to a regime that insists on measurable, quantitative, and sometimes trivial outcomes. But he has been willing to reappraise every aspect of the professional skills that had brought a form of success and recognition, along with deep frustration, and to hold onto the conviction that a classroom can be a place where education happens.

    The breaking of familiar patterns is challenging for him, for colleagues, and for pupils. It is a rocky ride for everyone, but also an exemplary exercise in practice-based research. Armed with insights from educationalists and a rigorous methodology that enables him to analyse and interpret the results of his new approach, and fortified by a constant, questioning dialogue with Stephen Bigger, Sean Warren succeeds in changing the dynamic in his classroom - a hard-won achievement and a thrilling one.

    This is not an arid book - all teachers will recognise the day-to-day dilemmas, confrontations, and compromises recounted here with honesty and wit. But it is inspirational: here is someone who has had the courage to believe in his students, in himself, and in the power of education.
  4. Drawing from a great wealth of research and the even greater wealth of their combined personal experience, Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger have written something rare - a book which not only deconstructs the thorny issues endemic in the British education system, but also presents us with intuitive and achievable remedies for them.
  5. A fascinating insight into teaching and education - I can personally identify with so many of the aspects discussed. What is clear throughout is that relationships in teaching are crucial: they underpin and determine the behaviour of students in our schools, whether we agree that this should be the case or not.

    I would recommend Living Contradiction to anyone entering or already in the education profession.
  6. Warren and Bigger's account is deeply human and is a model example of how to turn a piece of academic research (a PhD in this case) into a beautifully written, highly readable, and truly inspirational book.

    Living Contradiction is a book for now which addresses the urgency for a radical reassessment of what schooling should mean. Schooling, it should be remembered, is not the same as education; but as this book so clearly demonstrates, too much schooling today provides an arid landscape that produces stressed out teachers and unhappy pupils. Some of the source material - particularly the extracts from pupils' diaries - are frankly shocking, and illustrate an alarming lack of respect afforded to pupils' human rights and dignity.

    Not all schools are the same, of course, but all who are involved in the education of our young people will find here a fascinating and inspiring journey that grapples with the real issues of schooling. I'm certain that many teachers will find Living Contradiction deeply relevant and truly inspirational.
  7. What I like most about Living Contradiction is its collaborative nature and its honesty.

    Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger exemplify a collaborative educational relationship. Bigger, as a doctoral supervisor, has enabled Warren to make explicit and evolve his embodied knowledge as a professional educator whilst sharing, without imposition, his own insights. The book also  shows how Bigger shared his understandings of critical theory, encouraging Warren to see that autobiographical writings could produce a valid and academically legitimate contribution to educational knowledge in the generation of a living educational theory. This contribution, whilst grounded in the embodied knowledge of the educator, engages with and integrates insights from the most advanced social theories of our time.

    The honesty is in Warren's educational journey: from his steadfast adherence to institutional standards and expectations, to his recognition that he was losing some'­thing of himself in the process, and then to consolidating his creative and critical responses to these contradictions in living his values as fully as he can. I believe that Warren's inspirational honesty and responses will captivate your imagination and that his journey will resonate with your own experiences of the imposition of institutional power relations.

    I believe that Living Contradiction will be of great value on initial and continuing professional development programmes in education, and to all professionals in a wide range of workplace contexts who are facing their own contradictions in living their values as fully as they can.
  8. Living Contradiction is an intelligent, sensitive, and socially situated antidote to the macho, authoritarian -˜what works' publications in education that cocksurely proselytise about what needs to be done to improve teaching and learning.

    In conceptualising teaching as a moral and ethical practice, Warren and Bigger seek to illuminate and confront some of the complexities involved in dealing with the thorny issues of behaviour and discipline in schools. But rather than providing spurious, short term solutions, Living Contradiction takes the reader on a journey of critical reflection and self-learning as the authentic experience of Warren's professional life is openly interrogated. The richness, sensitivity, and depth of thought with which this book examines matters relating to behaviour and discipline in schools makes it very unique from many other publications.
  9. Warren and Bigger present a highly engaging account of a teacher's journey from an approach founded in authoritarianism to one founded in respect and care: moving from discipline imposed by teachers, to developing pupils' self-discipline that is the result of self-learning. Warren's sense of being a product of the education system - and his progressing through to becoming a servant of the system, then its agent and, ultimately, a reflective practitioner - is made all the more powerful by the real life stories from young people and teachers, and from Warren himself. The move from compliance and confrontation to cooperation and care is compelling in its challenge to readers to review their professional practice and relationships.

    Underpinned by research and personal reflection, Living Contradiction is a powerful challenge to the ways in which schools work.
  10. Living Contradiction is a fascinating, honest examination of that genuine contradiction faced by teachers in reconciling the effort made to encourage young people towards independent critical thinking, with the simultaneous sense of responsibility to instruct and insist on a particular behaviour.

    As adults we entrust teachers with a significant influence over the futures our children will enjoy. In reading Warren and Bigger's book it is encouraging to know that there are thoughtful professionals prepared to think beyond the constraints of the curriculum and work hard to find a way forward that best benefits young people; and it is heartening to read work that promotes empowerment and motivation over discipline and dictation whilst still insisting on a mutual respect. The authors also acknowledge that school is a community in itself that can reflect the best, and worst, of the society we expect young people to fit into as adults, and that teachers have a significant part to play in how that society can be influenced by the experience of young people in schools.

    The authors' methodology is robust, providing a full discussion and acknowledgement of the benefits and constraints of autobiography in an academic research project, and offers thought-provoking insight into the use of the immediacy of blogging as a tool to record or diarise, and share, immediate experience. Living Contradiction also offers an interesting evaluation of the role of educational theorists set against the realities of teachers' experience on the front line in schools, where years of academic research are set against the need to respond to a behaviour in a matter of minutes.

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