Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Narrative Inquiry as a Tool for Teacher Professional Development: "How do we get here?"

This post is a continuation of my previous post where I shared some of my initial thoughts on narrative inquiry as a tool for teacher professional development.

In the previous post, I summarised the 'tensions' between narrative thinking and the 'grand narrative', as described by Clandinin & Connelly (2000), and offered my views on how most evaluations of teacher professional development seem to subscribe more to the 'grand narrative' ideal. It seems to me that all these whiles, we've been concerned too much about the direct outcomes of a training model. The questions that we're more inclined to ask is: does it work? Why? What can we do to improve? And with this, we bring onto the table the idea of causality, i.e. X is a result of Y - which has an "ensuing certainty" to it, as described by Clandinin & Connelly. (Note: I acknowledge the need for me to widen my reading on the area of evaluations of teacher professional development programmes so I can affirm this with more confidence (haha). But for now, I'll just share my thoughts based on what I've read so far, and largely on my own personal experience as a teacher and teacher trainer).

This is of course fine, but my contention is that a teacher's learning development should be evaluated in a more tentative manner. The idea that underlies the concept of personalisation, differentiation and customisation which are strongly advocated by many proponents of transformative model of professional development for teachers (e.g. Gerstein, Kennedy, Borko & Putnam among others) stem from the concept of contextualisation. In teacher's learning - or any learning for that matter - context is most essential (Borko, 2004).

I would propose that we do away with causality and correlation. Instead of focusing on "what is the outcome?", I propose we shift our attention to "how do we get here?"

So, how do we get here? 

Clandinin & Connelly's (2000) thinking about narrative inquiry is associated with John Dewey's theory of experience. They came up with a metaphorical 'three-dimensional narrative inquiry space', which encapsulates the terms personal and social (interactions); past, present and future (continuity / temporal); and place (situation). In Clandinin & Connelly's words: "studies have temporal dimensions and address temporal matters; they focus on the personal and the social balance appropriate to the inquiry; and they occur in specific places or sequences of places" (p. 50).

In addition to the three-dimensional narrative inquiry space, Clandinin & Connelly also referred to their earlier work (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994) where they proposed four directions of inquiry: inward and outward; backward and forward. 'Inward' refers to "internal conditions", such as "feelings, hopes, aesthetic reactions, and moral dispositions", while 'outward' refers to "existential conditions, that is the environment" (p. 50). 'Backward' and 'forward' refer to the idea of temporality, i.e. past, present and future.

Using this inquiry space framework, an inquirer can capture the essence of her experiences in order to make sense of it. How does it look like in practice? One embarking on a narrative inquiry journey would ask questions, collect field notes, derive interpretations, and write a text that addresses both personal and social issues. This would be done by looking inward and outward, and by referring not only to the current event but also by thinking about the past and the future (p. 50).

Clandinin & Connelly's (2000) work concerned with narrative inquiry as a research tool, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I see lots of value in this line of thinking with regard to teacher professional development. I believe that 'inquiry' is a valuable tool for continuous professional development - and for the past few years, there are many methods of inquiries being proposed as innovative and transformative models of continuous professional development for teachers. For example, there have been active movements to engage teachers and practitioners in action research, exploratory practice and exploratory action research, just to name a few. All of these movements have  at their core the elements of continuous reflections, and of one constantly inquiring about and pondering upon one's professional practice. Besides, professional development as inquiry into practice is not a new idea. It can be traced back to as early as John Dewey's works in 1910 and 1933 (Crockett, 2002).

I believe in the potential of narrative inquiry which adopts Clandinin & Connelly's three-dimensional narrative inquiry space as another tool that can be used by teachers who are interested in embarking upon a journey of inquiry to develop themselves professionally.

But how does it really look like in practice? 

Johnson & Golombek's (2002) compilation of teachers' narrative inquiries published by Cambridge University Press provides excellent examples of how narrative inquiry can be adopted as a way for teachers to reflect upon their professional practices. Johnson & Golombek posited that "In order to make an experience educative, teachers need to approach narrative inquiry not as a set of prescriptive skills or task to be carried out but rather as a mind-set" (p. 5). This mind-set is defined by Johnson & Golombek as "a set of attitudes", referring to Dewey's (1933) notions of open-mindedness (seeking alternatives), responsibility (recognising consequences) and whole-heartedness (continual self-examination). Johnson & Golombek argued that when teachers use this mind-set in their inquiries, they will be able to "question their own assumptions as they uncover who they are, where they have come from, what their students know, and what their students need to know" (p. 5).

From 2011 to 2013, I was involved in a project called the English Language Teacher Development Project (ELTDP) conducted by the British Council in collaboration with the Malaysia Ministry of Education. It was a two-year teacher-mentoring project where "mentors were assigned to teachers not as trainers but as experienced professionals who could work with teachers in schools and support them in implementing, via reflective practice, changes in their teaching" (Borg, 2013, p. 2). Towards the end of the project, a three-volume publication called the Narratives of Teacher Development was published, which captured the essence of the professional development experiences of the teachers involved. The publication, as Borg described in the introduction, "provide insights into the range of impacts the project has achieved" (p. 2). I believe this is one good example of how providers of teacher development employs teachers' narrative accounts as a way of evaluating the impacts of the training provided.

Similar approach was adopted by the IATEFL Research Special Interest Group (Research SIG), which I'm a member of since 2013. Following the Research SIG's pre-conference event at Harrogate in 2014, a publication called Teachers Research! which captured the research stories of the participants were published. In explaining the 'principles' behind the format of the event's execution and the subsequent publication, Smith (2015) mentioned that the emphasis on "research by teachers for teachers" was "intended to push back an increasingly dominant idea that academic quality criteria should necessarily be applied to teacher research - instead, the quality of teacher and learner development involved might be just as important" (p. 3).

What the three publications on teacher narratives that I've shared here have in common is the main focus and the importance they all give to teachers' personal experiences. Each publication provides the participating teachers with the spaces and opportunities to reflect upon and to make sense of their professional development experiences. And these narratives are not treated as arbitrary testimonies or mere anecdotes - they are rich qualitative data and sources of insights both for the teachers, and also for the providers of the teacher development programmes. I think Johnson & Golombek (2002) encapsulated it the best when they stated that "teachers' stories of inquiries are not only about professional development; they are professional development" (p. 6, emphasis in original).

These are just three examples - and I believe there are more good ones out there. If you know of any other such sources, I would really appreciate it if you can direct me to them.

Teachers' stories are not only about professional development, they are professional development

What now?

If I were to push this idea further, I would need to envision how Clandinin & Connelly's (2000) three-dimensional narrative inquiry space can be translated into practice. To date, we can find quite a lot of examples of how teachers' narratives are used as a way to reflect upon classroom practices. But what I would be more interested in exploring is how narrative inquiry can be used to evaluate teachers' learning through a professional development activity that they participate in. And I would like to see the three-dimensional narrative inquiry space be more explicitly adopted in this line of inquiries.

I think I should stop here for now so I can do more readings ha ha...I'll get back with a continuation of this post as soon as I have new reflections to share.

Till the next post! -ccj, 8.19am, Cambridge.


Borg, S. (2013). Narratives of Teacher Development (Vol. 1). British Council.

Borko, H. (2004). Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3–15. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X033008003

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2004). Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey Bass.

Crockett, M. D. (2002). Inquiry as professional development: creating dilemmas through teachers’ work. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18(5), 609–624. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(02)00019-7

Johnson, K. E., & Golombek, P. R. (Eds.). (2002). Teachers’ narrative inquiry as professional development. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Smith, R., & Bullock, D. (2015). Teachers Research! IATEFL Research SIG.

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