Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, 1874-1963, “The Road Not Taken”
When individual teachers or entire schools are faced with the desire/need to develop/change, two paths appear before them:
Following a narrative
Creating their own narrative
Following a narrative means following a fairly well-worn path, waiting to be told what to do by someone in “authority,” and then implementing that prescribed plan—compliance rather than empowerment. Compliance isn’t wrong; in some circumstances, it is necessary and logical. But it does have consequences.
In our haste to transfer academic research and government policies into fruition, the professional development of teachers has been a casualty in this compliance narrative. Typically, the teacher/leader becomes the conduit, a channel for conveying knowledge from the source to the students. Within this transmissive system, we neglect to empower our teachers.
We know this transmissive teaching method is often ineffective in driving sustainable change, or learning, so why would we accept it for ourselves?
Just as we crave the desire to enable our students to be agentic, active learners, driven by the joy of learning, we should also hold our professional developers to account for creating teachers who persevere, are resilient to challenges, who aren’t afraid to question, innovate, create, and learn from their mistakes.
We can create these conditions for growth by taking the other path, creating our own narrative. Enter stage right, the Power of Narrative Pedagogy.
“Story, it’s a reminder that you’ve lived it and that it has value.” —Heather Greenwood Davis
What is Narrative Pedagogy?
Narrative pedagogy is an approach to thinking about teaching and learning that evolves from the lived experiences of teachers and students, using a narrative landscape to find and explore meaning. The telling of stories opens the door for eliciting and analyzing issues, interpreting and contextualizing meaning, and reflecting and integrating personal and theoretical knowledge. The most important thing about narratives is that they have an emotional effect on people: They can both shock and encourage them.
As Daniel Pink points out:
“Stories are easier to remember because stories are how we remember. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact.”
Therefore, if our thoughts bring emotion, they are more likely to stick—in turn making you more likely to act.
We have always found meaning in our lives through stories. It is what makes us human. Our ability to use metaphor and story to create history, culture, and purpose are all unique to us as a species. Think of when you listened to a song, read a poem, or watched a movie that has touched you on a personal level. It was written in another place and another time by a stranger who does not know you and whose life may bear only a scant connection to your own, but it resonated, it made you think, laugh, cry, filled you with love, or energy, or sadness. This is the power of narrative. Stories define and validate us as individuals and as a society.
How Do We Start Encouraging Teachers to Influence Their Own Narrative?
Before we set out down this path, we need to know the starting point. For educators, that means knowing ourselves and our context. We can’t be told this, and if we are told this, our context is likely to be defined by statistics and comparisons.
Over facts and figures, we need personality and life. We need to listen to our own stories. Pause, pay attention, hear, and understand the voices that make up our context, our professional identity that has shaped us, our personal narratives.
To do this requires courage. A courage of care is needed to respect and empower the voices of our own people to ensure we are not only meeting our community’s needs, we are also ensuring our schools are places of joy and magic. Listening is the first step toward empowerment and agency.
Finding a Point in Collaboration
Working hard with a collective of schools that were trying to collaborate on raising the literacy achievement of their students, we found the above approach needed implementing. This was a mixed group of schools with varying contexts, from primary to intermediate to high school brought together because of their data, their statistics.
Initially, there was conflict in these sessions as the school staffs didn’t quite understand the purpose of discussing the progress of students who were at levels above and below their “usual” scope and away from their context. They were also struggling to see the point in yet another meeting to their busy week. Taking the time to listen to their concerns, giving them space to share their narrative, and hearing what they were finding challenging, we designed the following meeting with care.
As they trundled into the next meeting tired and resistant, the session opened with a rallying call, a “thank you” for their honesty with a reassurance that their words had been heard. Instead of talking about progress, the educators spent time discussing what teaching methods they currently used in their settings. If there were any strategies that were unfamiliar in the group, teachers volunteered to model what that looked like to the others. Each school was represented, each teacher was nervous.
On sharing their teaching strategies, the room erupted in joy. They had been empowered to share their stories, shared their expertise. Our job had been to merely listen, respond, and facilitate the conversation. After each modeled example, they excitedly referred what they had seen to the progression framework we had been building a rubric for, then they made connections with how the modeled example could be adapted for the level they taught at. The result was efficacy as they had room to create their own narrative instead of being compliant. The rabble had bonded.
Vulnerability is Key
There is a danger in using narrative pedagogy. To share our stories, to create our own narrative, to establish where we are and where we need to go means being emotionally vulnerable, it means sharing and collaborating. This is going to be, at times, uncomfortable and challenging. Sometimes, it is easier not to and just go with the flow.
The dramatist Bertolt Brecht realized this when he used Verfremdungseffekt, (the “estrangement effect” or the “alienation effect”) when he wanted his audience to respond to important themes (wars) that were confronting Germany between the two world wars. Brecht set his plays in “removed locations” to enable his audience to respond to the themes and issues before personalizing them to facilitate a more rational thought process and emotional connection.
This step is important if we want to use narrative pedagogy to not only resonate and validate but to develop a shared understanding and collaborative action.
At its core, the use of narrative pedagogy allows for voices to be shared to develop a collective story or history that defines and drives the group. It values the individual by giving them space to share and be heard, so we get to know ourselves better individually and collectively. The process of “storying” in this way is one reason why reflection journals are often so effective.
We invite our teachers to reflect on the way they teach, favoring relationships and student agency as researched ways to effect change in how our students learn. If this magic method works from teacher to students, it’s about time we realize that this method will also help our teachers learn, too.
This approach is not new. It is well researched and documented. For example, the work of Rasa Nedzinskaitė-Mačiūnienė [Vytautas Magnus University] and Agnė Juškevičienė [VilniusUniversity], Lithuania, Kerry Priest [Kansas State University] and Corey Seemiller [Wright State University], as well as Ivor Goodson [University of Tallinn] and Scherto Gill [University of Sussex], all detail the power of stories and narrative pedagogical approaches.
Goodson and Gill’s diagram reprinted below is a particularly effective visual representation of the process from narrative to action.
Sharing narrations with colleagues and thinking them over not only enables teachers to see their motives, but they are also able to identify common challenges and dilemmas. All said and done, the narration of a story can serve as a powerful mechanism for transforming learning; it evokes imagination and can create and enhance professional creativity. Nurture it, don’t surrender it.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.