Researcher Urges Colleagues To Use ‘Storytelling’ Techniques

November 25, 1992 4 min read

The “unfortunate allegiance’’ educational researchers hold to the idea of their profession as social science is self-defeating and serves to limit their ability to communicate with the lay public, according to Thomas E. Barone, an associate professor of education at Arizona State University.

Writing in the Nov. 1992 issue of Educational Researcher, Mr. Barone argues that most researchers view themselves as scientists who set their own research agenda and determine standards for practice--including the language for presenting findings. The only way their work is translated to the general public, he says, is through the mass media, with which they do not communicate well.

As an alternative, Mr. Barone cites such “nonfiction storybooks’’ as Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren and Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, which he says inform the public about schools in an accessible, compelling, and persuasive way. Researchers, he argues, should be “willing and able to educate the public’’ through similar types of stories.

Mr. Barone discussed his ideas of educational research with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Why do you think educational researchers have distanced themselves from lay people?

A. That’s a long story. It’s something that has been, obviously, happening a long time. It goes back to the genesis of where we came from as educational researchers. It goes back to how educational research entered the field as a scientific endeavor, based primarily on psychology, how as part of academia, people who are researchers are a distinct class of people, who write in a language that is specialized, with esoteric kinds of concerns that need to be translated for people, rather than speaking directly to people.

Q. Is the public the audience? Shouldn’t the audience be primarily practitioners?

A. Practitioners should be part of the audience. My argument is that, if this is a true democracy--it is at least theoretically--a lot of power concerning what happens in schools resides in the polity. While practitioners have degrees of freedom to operate in schools, they are hamstrung by policies, and also conditions, that result from larger cultural forces beyond their control. ...

We as educational researchers [must] speak forcefully, persuasively, and directly to the large group of people who make up the democratic population of the country.

Q. Why do you think journalists such as Tracy Kidder and Alex Kotlowitz have been more successful in connecting with the public?

A. They don’t have to play by the rules educational researchers do. Some of the rules have been unfortunate. They do, as literary journalists, speak in a language that is accessible, they write stories that are compelling and usually persuasive.

That hasn’t been part of our reward structure. They are able to do it, because they have practice doing it. We don’t have practice.

What I am calling for is for educational research to begin to rethink whether the premises and principles in which we operate are beneficial ones, or whether they prevent us from speaking to an audience we ought to be addressing.

There are people in education research who are extremely talented writers. But all of us are forced to write in a certain style, a certain mode.

Q. Some educational researchers are adopting methods, such as ethnography, that are more narrative in form. Do you see that as a step in the right direction?

A. It’s a step in the direction I am talking about, yes. Ethnography is considered to be by most ethnographers social science. They feel compelled to label it as social science to be legitimate.

There are [also] arts-based and journalistic styles of research. I believe they are real forms of research that are available for us to use. We should avail ourselves more of those modes of inquiry.

Several educational ethnographers are writing in a more literary style. People in anthropology believe ethnography is essentially storytelling, more than anything else. All of that is a movement toward thinking that what we do as educational researchers has esthetic qualities to it. ... That’s important if we’re going to be accessible.

Q. More traditional researchers argue that some of the narrative forms of research suffer from a lack of generalizability, which limits what can be learned from them. How do you respond to that?

A. That’s asking the question whether you can learn anything from literature, whether you can learn from reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

[Generalizability] seems to be an inappropriate term. It comes from the sciences; [it is inappropriate] to use it in relation to a work of literature or art.

The question is whether or not a work of literature or arts-based educational research is credible, whether it speaks to people’s experiences and is persuasive, more than whether it is generalizable.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Researcher Urges Colleagues To Use ‘Storytelling’ Techniques