Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Narrative Inquiry

I have recently been exposed to a group of educators who believe the best way to inquiry is through the narrative process. Their approach is a personal one. My reading in this area started with a woman named Vivian Paley, a kindergarten teacher who used a form of community drama in her class to help students grasp new ideas and to express themselves.

The thing about using narrative for inquiry, and I am not objecting to it, just thinking out loud, is that its personal approach tends to be too subjective and for some not approachable. The opposite of the narrative would of course be a straight forward proposal, giving the reader something to think about, challenging him, and backing up statements with numerous facts and figures. The problem with the second approach, of course, is that black and white figures don't always tell the whole story and can be skewed.

What interests me about this trend toward narrative in educational inquiry is that it goes in the face of No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on quantitative results. Maybe its a reactionary movement within education. Not that I would ever want to accuse my fellow teachers of being passive aggressive.

As always, when thinking about extremes, the middle road seems the best, taking the cream that both sides have to offer.

17 comments:

Jon said...

Education as performance art? I suppose there might be some very limited application for this, but I doubt it would be very effective overall.
I for one was almost terminally shy as a child. The very idea of having to participate in a narrative experience would have had me quivering in a corner. Of course, I didn't do very well with my regular instruction either...

Stewart Sternberg said...

Small children don't perceive it as performance art, and Paley would certainly never force a child. These kids are together day after day and I would imagine that eventually the layers of self-consciousness peels away. I appreciate Paley, and have even tried some degree of this myself with teens. I am always buoyed when someone is stepping out of the mold.

The idea behind Paley is that children are creative and that play is their primary means of expression. She believes that kindergarten is the place to embrace and encourage that behavior, not to saddle the children with rote learning.

spyscribbler said...

I don't know what the narrative process is, or even what the best way to inquiry is, LOL. Too theoretical for me. I have a stack of method books written by people with PhD's who did this or that because of this or that study. None of them work. I just teach with practical common sense, LOL. If you know how the student is perceiving what you are saying, then you can communicate.

However, narrative means story to me, so if you're talking about teaching through story, then I'd agree. We remember better if our memory is attached to a story.

That said, I don't believe it's a contradiction to quantifiable learning. When all is said and done, they either know it or they don't. How they learned it will change how easy it was for them to understand it, but in the end, if they learned it, they learned it.

SQT said...

I could see how this could be useful for some kids. When I taught grammar school there were some kids who just couldn't learn in the traditional reading based fashion. Obviously one thing won't fit all learning types, but I'm all for trying something new.

Charles Gramlich said...

hum, I'm afraid I'd have to have more explanation to understand exactly what this is.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Spy, I think I agree with the common sense approach, but I can't say that the learning process can be pinned down as neatly as "if they know it they know it." I think the idea is to give them situations in which they can apply the information they've used, to apply new forms of problem solving or to apply the concepts to new problems.

Charles, you would have to read Paley. I think there are some good sites online about her. And yes, Spy, narrative means story. And I agree it is a way to engage.

Of course, Gardner, the man of multiple intelligences, would argue it is only one of several approaches or entry points.

spyscribbler said...

I'll echo Charles. I would love if you explained it a little.

Cappy said...

That's your Michigan Democrat: always whining about having to produce quantitative results.

miller580 said...

ok...I am going to comment here...a gut reaction...but only under the clear understanding that while I have googled / wikipediad Paley I am not even close to an understanding of her research nor do I claim to be any sort of scholar in terms to childhood development nor the education of shildren. That being said, it looks to me her primary research has been in early childhood development. (that's not to say that her work/research hasn't been furthered). And her belief is that one can help a child develop cognitively through the use of narrative. I hope I got that right. And to this point I say "duh"...teaching 3-5 year olds through narrative? Really? Isn't that what children's books do? Isn't that what make believe and pretending does? Little stories that allow them to stretch their imagination and learn concepts and "morals" (the moral of the story is...not jesus died for your sins morals).

So to me that is a no brainer.

Which leads me to the question of what age is being applied in your (Stewart) discussion. Is the concept to bring it in to upper elementary, jr. high, or high school? Is this something that is across all fields of study (math science history and english)?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Paley is a kindergarten teacher who changed her ways somewhat later in life and began to stand up for the idea of utilizing children's natural inclination toward play and imagination to help them internalize and express certain abstract issues. Her expression of using play and performance is a reaction to a movement within education to have teachers move back toward rote understanding and teaching to certain preidentified standards. Paley would argue that at this age children shouldn't have their imaginations suppressed or be forced into an artificial construct where they are made to learn that which they are not ready to learn and may have little interest in.

She has written numerous books...essays...mostly narratives about her teaching. She is not exactly an education theorist, or at least her writings are certainly not of the academic mode.

I think many of her techniques can be applied to an older age group. For instance, I have tried to do this in teaching character development to secondary education students. I had them read a portion of a story, then act out that story, taking it in any direction they wished. Then they examined their own feelings as the character and tried to express these feelings on paper.

Teaching is a creative and individualistic endeavor.

seventh sister said...

Lewis Mehl-Madrona writes beautifully about how narratives have been used for teaching in all communities since the dawn of time. He comes from a Native American background but what he writes is relevent to all of ous. It is intriguing to learn that someone is purpsofully using in it public schools.

Pythia3 said...

It makes sense, Paley's method...but, like Jon, I was very introverted and protected behind a self-built castle wall. I lived within the confines of the wall but outside the box - experiencing the infinite possibilities of my own imagination and of my many personas.
I was a daydreamer. I can speak from the many me's but I'm not as good at character development outside the scope of my me's.
I am going to look her up - sounds like she could be helpful to the one me who wants to be a writer.
Thanks, Stewart, you always have something interesting here - when you post something, that is:)
Missed you.

William Jones said...

This is a fascinating topic, Stewart.

As mentioned by several people here, for many students, of any age, speaking aloud is a dread horror. Often, this is the source of much anxiety in class - particularly if the student has nothing to say, or if the student "forgot" to read/study the topic.

At the same time, it is amazing what happens when students do start talking, and talking with each other. Providing them with a framework (narrative) for the discussion seems to make it easier for the students - maybe gives them an excuse to speak without being embarrassed? However, I'm not sure how far that narrative should go. It is an interesting question. There is much to be said for creative learning. And there is much to be said for hitting the books. Both approaches use different intellectual tools, and both are important to learning.

Brad said...

Age appropriate...

Young children learn at alarming rates but need to be exposed to expository - content-based material in creative ways. This is due to the fact that non-fiction is highly vocabulary centered. Young one's aren't ready to use (just) an inquiry model for 'understanding' when they can't approach the content - because of the vernacular.

I remember, as a child, being taught about milk production and Louis Pasteur (sp) through the use of puppets. I grew up thinking that Pasteurization was a process in which people played with puppets in order to make milk safe to drink.

Christina said...

This is interesting. I wonder how it will work in the classroom. That's where it's going on right? How young are we talking about? I could see it useful in college, but grade school and even high school there would be peer pressure to be like everyone else, or have things changed since I was in school?

DonkeyBlog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DonkeyBlog said...

It's always good to come in out of the Blog darkness and see that Mr Sternberg is still bashing out interesting discussion themes. When working in the Solomon Islands a few years ago, we trialled a concept of monitoring our program's activities through appreciative inquiry of villagers. It was a very interesting process, and I really enjoyed doing it, however the bean counters weren't all that happy to learn that the most valued changes in the previous years, as perceived by villagers, had nothing to do with our program's activities, but generally centred around the introduction of satellite TV and the opening of supermarkets. Some very red faces, I can tell you.