Thursday, March 7, 2019

Measurement versus Mobilisation? : Exploring Ways to Understand Teacher Knowledge

I have been sharing my thoughts and reflections on this topic on three blog posts so far :D And I think it's getting clearer to me where these whole things are heading. If you're interested, you can check out my previous posts:

In the first post, I tried to explore the concept of narrative inquiry and discuss briefly the 'tensions' between narrative thinking and the traditional, so-called more 'scientific-grounded' 'grand narrative.' In the second post, I went deeper into what narrative inquiry is about and tried to see if we can explore the potential for it to be a tool for self-reflective, self-determined professional development for teachers. The third post might seem a bit off-tangent, but it's still related. I shared my passion on teacher knowledge and technology integration, and suggested narrative inquiry as a possible alternative approach to analyse the development of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) of teachers. 

What I'm hoping to do in this post is to gather my thoughts in a more organised manner - to explore the reasons why I believe narrative inquiry is the way to go when discussing teacher knowledge and teacher professional development in general - and specifically technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK). I'm revisiting the 'tensions' described by Clandinin & Connelly (2000) and will try to contextualise them within the scope of teacher knowledge, teacher professional development and of course, TPACK.

Exploring the Value of Experiences

While discussing the conceptualisation of the TPACK framework for application in teacher professional development, Mishra & Koehler (2006) drew on Dewey’s philosophy on experience and stated that “every experience should prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper, more expansive quality” (p. 1040). Though not explicitly addressed in the paper, Mishra & Koehler’s reference to experience implied a focus on the development (rather than the numerical measurement) of teacher knowledge.

In discussing narrative as a strategy of inquiry in research, Clandinin & Connelly (2000) also drew on John Dewey in addition to Mark Johnson and Alasdair Macintyre as their main sources of influence. As mentioned in my previous posts (see above), change is central to a narrative, and certainty is not a goal (p. 7). Hence, narrative is not a quest to find a definite answer to a question. Rather, it is a journey or an attempt to understand change and the factors that surround it.

Clandinin & Connelly described a “tension” between what they refer to as the ‘grand narrative’ and narrative inquiry. The ‘grand narrative’ is an idea of research that subscribes to Thorndike’s ideal of “observation and numerical presentation of behaviour” that has emerged as ‘the’ way in educational research (p. 22). Challenging this so-called “unquestioned way of looking at things” by proposing the alternative approach of narrative inquiry (p. 22), Clandinin & Connelly were faced with oppositions that they described as follows: “We thought they were slightly intransigent and unwilling to change, whereas they, with the weight of opinion on their side, probably saw us as esoteric and unwilling to compromise” (p. 29).

The 'Tensions'

In the context of teacher professional development, I would argue that the narrative inquiry strategy is a more pertinent approach than the ‘grand narrative’. I will discuss the impetus for adopting narrative inquiry over the ‘grand narrative’ by analysing the five ‘tensions’ listed by Clandinin & Connelly (2000), i.e. temporality, people, action, certainty and context.


When discussing temporality, narrative thinking looks at an event as having a past, a present and an implied future (p. 29). Applying this to the context of a teacher’s professional development, we know that the teacher’s experience does not start and stop at the training session. The teacher brings with her a past experience that shapes how she conceptualises the knowledge she learns at the present training, and her plans for transferring the knowledge she has acquired into practice after the training is over, i.e. in the future. In their earlier work, Clandinin & Connelly encapsulated this time-bound nature through their notion of “personal practical knowledge”, i.e. a particular way for a teacher to reconstruct “the past and the intentions of the future to deal with the exigencies of a present situation” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988, p. 25).

The ‘grand narrative’, on the other hand, characterises events and things “in and of themselves”, and appear to have a “timeless sense about them” (p. 30). This is the assumption mainly adopted by approaches that seek to measure whether a teacher’s knowledge has reached a certain ‘level’ or ‘standard’ as a result of a training session. This is problematic, because as discussed in my previous posts, teacher knowledge is not static or stagnant. It is personal, practical, tacit, systematic, and dynamic (Borg, 2015). Therefore, my contention is that examining teacher knowledge should require an approach that is not impersonal, rigid or devoid of context.


People are central to narrative inquiry. Clandinin & Connelly (2000) emphasised that “people, at any point in time, are in a process of personal change” (p. 30). Narrative thinking takes into account the histories and experiences of people. In the context of research on teacher professional development, a narrative inquirer is interested in “understanding teachers as knowers: knowers of themselves, of their situations, of children, of subject matter, of teaching, of learning” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999, p. 1). This strikes a resonance with the underlying principles of the TPACK framework, which seeks to understand the interplay among the three components of technology, subject matter and pedagogy as well as the affordances and constraints that they represent.

The ‘grand narrative’s’ focus on scientific observation and numerical measurements makes it an “essentially people-free notion” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 30). Inquiries on teacher professional development that adopted this approach would be more interested in measuring the effectiveness of a training programme without taking into account the personal experiences of the teachers involved. Narrative histories and personal experiences would be seen as irrelevant or merely anecdotal. This view goes against the notion of teachers as holders of knowledge. For me, it seems to be taking the most important variable out of the equation.


In narrative inquiry, action is understood as a “narrative sign” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 30). Any action should be interpreted as expressions of narrative histories (p. 31). Interpretations of narrative histories give significant meaning to an action. In the context of research on teacher professional development, a narrative inquirer would interpret a teacher’s practice, either inside or outside the classroom, in relation to his personal histories and contextual experiences. Every single action and decision would be traced back to the teacher’s context as well as past and present experiences.

The ‘grand narrative’ perspective will treat an action as a direct evidence of something. For example, performance is a direct evidence of cognitive level. In the context of teacher professional development, this would mean interpreting teacher’s practices in the classroom as either a sign of competence or incompetence, or as evidence of the levels of skills in certain pedagogical approaches. This would often be measured using instruments consisting of checklists or description of standards. Although quite a common practice in many research on teacher professional development (e.g. Rohaan, Taconis & Jochem, 2012; K├Ânig & Pflanzl, 2016; Lin & Rowland, 2016), I would like to propose a more personalised way of examining teacher knowledge. Analysing teacher knowledge and learning experiences in this manner reduces teachers to “merely a filtering variable or a factor to be considered as either an impediment or a catalyst for the achievement of objectives” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 28). There are contextually-bound and historically-driven reasons for every action taken by teachers as professionals in the classroom, and I propose that we take these reasons into considerations when analysing the development of teacher knowledge through professional development activities.

There are contextually-bound and historically-driven reasons for every action taken by teachers as professionals in the classroom, and I propose that we take these reasons into considerations when analysing the development of teacher knowledge through professional development activities


Narrative thinking approaches certainty with tentativeness. Since narrative inquiry is concerned with people’s experiences, there are no right or wrong answers. A narrative inquirer embarking on research on teacher knowledge should adopt what Clandinin & Connelly (2000) described as doing “one’s best”, i.e. “knowing all the while that other possibilities, other interpretations, other ways of explaining things are possible” (p. 31). In dealing with the personal, tacit, systematic and dynamic nature of teacher knowledge (Borg, 2015), I believe this is the natural approach to be adopted.

From the ‘grand narrative’ perspective, “causality, with its ensuing certainty, is the hallmark” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 31). The attitude associated with the ‘grand narrative’ is that there is one correct answer to every question. Causality requires the inquirer to explain how X results in Y. Factors are relationships that can be explained by equations. This will certainly create a lot of problems when applied in the study of the ever-changing and progressive nature of the temporal, contextually-bound knowledge and experiences of teachers. The complex and differentiated nature of knowledge and experiences is such that it is impossible to reduce them to mathematical equations. As Mishra & Koehler (2006) puts it, “it is difficult to study cause and effect when teachers, classrooms, politics and curriculum goals vary from case to case” (p. 1018).


In describing their journey towards the construction of the TPACK framework after 5 years of research on teacher professional development, Mishra & Koehler (2006) stated that the challenge was to develop a theory that captures “a detailed understanding of complex relationships that are contextually bound” (p. 1018, emphasis added). Clandinin & Connelly (2000) listed the three types of contexts to look out for in narrative inquiry, and they are temporal context, spatial context, and context of other people. In narrative thinking, context is “ever present” and “necessary for making sense of any person, event, or thing” (p. 32). This is highly relevant for research on the ever-evolving, dynamic and contextually-bound teacher knowledge. 

The ‘grand narrative’ view acknowledges that contexts do exist. However, the main concern is to explore answers and solutions that can be applied to all contexts. According to Clandinin & Connelly (2000), the general view of the ‘grand narrative’ is that “context can be analysed into variables and measures of certainty attached to the importance of various contextual factors” (p. 32). The prime concern of the ‘grand narrative’ is the universal case, and not the person. This view would lead to the design of ‘one-size-fits-all’ teacher professional development models that are not differentiated or customised based on teachers’ individual needs and contexts.

So What? What Now?

Well, I think to a certain extent I have managed to convince myself of the value of exploring teacher's development of knowledge by analysing their learning experiences through narrative inquiry, as opposed to measuring the levels of knowledge based on a certain standard descriptions or checklists. Of course, this doesn't end here. The questions that I really would like to find the answers to are these: 

What is happening in the transition between training and actual classroom practices?
How do teachers make sense of the experiences? 
What goes through teachers’ cognition in terms of how they can transfer or mobilise their newly acquired knowledge to actual practice? 
How do teachers interpret the affordances and constraints? 
What factors influence their decisions?

And most importantly: Can the answers to the above questions be explored through narrative inquiry? If so, how?

I hope I can share my thoughts on these in my next post. :) :)

Till the next one! -ccj, 8.10am, Cambridge


Borg, S. (2015). Teacher Cognition and Language Education. London New Dehli New Xork Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey Bass.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054.

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