Narrative and learning to
implications for teacher- education curriculum
WALTER DOYLE and KATHY CARTER
Walter Doyle is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA. He has written on issues of curriculum theory and classroom processes.
Kathy Carter, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, has written extensively on story and the development of teacher knowledge.
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The use of narrative as a perspective within which to understand teacher development has gained considerable momentum in the last decade (Carter 1993, Carter and Doyle 1996, Doyle 1997, Munby et al. 2001), and this perspective has led to several important innovations in the pedagogy of teacher education: the study of cases, the writing of personal narratives, and the like. But few have pushed the narrative perspective beyond pedagogy to examine the assumptions and interpretations that underlie the contents, activities, and arrangements of preservice teacher preparation, i.e. to explore the curriculum of teacher education.
To approach this task, we set the stage by clarifying briefly what the terms 'narrative' and 'curriculum' refer to. We then examine the underlying assumptions and expectations of the conventional curriculum of preservice teacher education. At this point the narrative perspective is used to critique this conventional view and propose a new way of thinking about preservice preparation. We conclude with a discussion of how teacher education might be redesigned if the narrative perspective were taken seriously.
The terms 'narrative' and 'curriculum' are basic to this deliberation, so it is important to be clear about how they are being used here.
At its core, a narrative perspective holds that human beings have a universal predisposition to 'story' their experience, that is, to impose a narrative interpretation on information and experience. At a very basic level, 'Stories consist . . . of events, characters, and settings arranged in a temporal sequence implying both causality and significance' (Carter 1993: 6). Thus, a story carries information about how things work and what meanings events have. In addition, stories are told to someone, an imagined reader, by someone, an implicit or explicit observer/narrator, who recounts the events and often presumes to know what the characters are thinking. A story also contains information about presumed intention and motivation as well as a sense of audience, of who is looking in on events. Finally, a story by its very nature resists singular interpretation. In Iser's (1996: 19) words, story 'launches multifarious patterns'. A story captures nuance, indeterminacy and interconnectedness in ways that defy formalistic expression and expand the possibilities for interpretation and understanding.
From a narrative standpoint, teachers (and everyone else, for that matter) live storied lives (Bruner 1985), and therefore 'think, perceive, imagine, and make moral choices according to narrative structures' (Sarbin 1986: 8). We as human beings tend, in other words, to interpret our lives by weaving comprehensive frameworks in which the incidents, people, actions, emotions, ideas, and settings of our experience are brought together, interrelated, and situated. In this process we sort through our experiences, dividing the pertinent from the extraneous and filling in the gaps as we construct sensible renderings or accounts of our personal histories.
This use of narrative to make sense of the world appears to begin quite early in life: even very young children comprehend and create stories long before they can grasp abstract and detached facts, propositions, or laws (Lyle 2000, Hoodless 2002). In Paley's (1990: 163) words, 'play and storytelling of their own making . . . are, after all, the children's natural, intuitive means for interpreting all aspects of their world'. Nelson and her colleagues (1989) studied 122 transcripts of conversations a two-year-old girl had with herself in her crib right before falling asleep and found a rich narrative capability being used to interpret everyday events. In speaking about preschool children, Bruner (quoted in Gladwell 2002: 118), who was involved in the analysis of the crib narratives, maintains that the narrative form is:
the only way [children] have of organizing the world, of organizing experience . . . . They are not able to bring theories that organize things in terms of cause and effect and relationships, so they turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection. If they don't catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn't get remembered very well, and it doesn't seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over.
Story is a fundamental way of human knowing, and this assertion is especially true in preservice teacher education, for at least two reasons. First, much of the practical knowledge teachers acquire from teaching arises from actions in situations---the essential ingredients of story. To understand preservice teachers' development, it is necessary to capture the stories within which this knowledge and understanding are embedded. Second, beginning teachers, as novices in teaching situations, lack the rich conceptual, i.e. narrative, frames that experienced teachers gain from repeated execution of teaching episodes in classroom situations. They lack experientially grounded categories for apprehending and interpreting classroom events, and yet cannot rely on more abstract disciplinary knowledge to make sense of everyday experiences. They are likely, therefore, to fall back on a cognitive strategy they have been using for most of their lives: they construct stories.
Such arguments have given rise to a teacher education literature rich with personal narratives and detailed cases, and this literature has penetrated teacher education practice in a variety of ways. Cases, for instance, are widely used to concretize propositional knowledge, to illustrate various methods and approaches, and to trigger personal reflection (Lundberg et al. 1999). In addition, teacher education students are frequently being asked to write personal narratives to capture their underlying conceptions of teaching and to keep journals to 'story' their progress toward becoming a teacher (Knowles and Holt-Reynolds 1991).
These innovations in teacher education pedagogy are certainly cause for celebration. But here our purpose is slightly different. The intention is to examine larger issues related to the curriculum for teacher education itself. This means that the target of these remarks is the families of content that typically make up the substance of preservice teacher-preparation programmes, to the expectations generally held about what preservice preparation should accomplish, and to the normal duration of the enterprise of preparing a beginning teacher. The broad structure and substance of the teacher education curriculum was invented long before the modern narrative perspective was articulated, and this invention reflects often-unexamined assumptions about how teachers are made. Moreover, the translation into teacher education practice of modern awarenesses of the narrative nature of teaching and teacher development has typically been local and piecemeal, i.e. at the level of tasks and exercises within existing curricular frames. Few, however, have examined the broader curriculum mandates that might flow from a narrative perspective on teacher preparation. The argument here is that this perspective has far greater consequences for how teacher educators think about preparing teachers than current practice might suggest.
Before we can make that journey, however, we pause to be clear about the often slippery term, 'curriculum'. In most conversations, 'curriculum' is used as a convenient synonym for 'content', and this equivalency works reasonably well for many practical purposes. But this blending of meanings can convey a sense that content can be taken at face value as something that simply exists and is largely inert, i.e. it remains pretty much the same under all conditions. So, mathematics is mathematics is mathematics. What is masked by this view is the extent to which a curriculum is essentially an interpretation or theory of content. To create curriculum is to invent meanings for content as an educative medium.
Two brief examples will help clarify this notion. The first example is from Margaret Atwood's wonderful novel, The Blind Assassin (2000). The main character, Iris, opens the chapter called 'Ovid's Metamorphoses' this way:
Father had decided, correctly enough, that our education had been neglected. He wanted us taught French, but also Mathematics and Latin---brisk mental exercises that would act as a corrective for our excessive dreaminess. Geography too would be bracing . . . . He wanted the lacy, frilly, somewhat murky edges trimmed off us as if we were lettuces, leaving a plain, sound core. He didn't understand why we liked what we liked. He wanted us turned into the semblances of boys, one way or another. Well, what do you expect? He'd never had sisters. (p. 161)
Now here, clearly, mathematics, Latin, and geography are not seen by Iris' father as embryonic disciplines that might be found in a university but rather as antidotes to what he perceived as his daughters' feminine ways of thinking.
The second example is from James Lipton's (1993) charming book, An Exaltation of Larks, a collection and a history of authentic collective nouns, like the familiar 'school of fish', or 'pride of lions', or 'gaggle of geese', or our son Griffin's personal favourite, 'an impossibility of platypuses'. Lipton discovered that such collections are quite old, dating from the mid-15th century. These days teacher educators would probably curricularize this material as word-play, perhaps a motivating introduction to poetry. Along these lines, for example, Griffin recently invented 'a brace of orthodontists'. But in the 15th century the educative purpose was much more sober. Such lists were a valuable resource to provide a gentleman with the means of social acceptability and to spare him the embarrassment of some blunder at table---of referring, for example, to a bunch or flock of owls when the proper term is a parliament of owls. In such incidents, 'those who are wiser may have the laugh of you, and we who love you may be shamed', a quote from a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle in which a young man is being schooled in the proper terminology to avoid embarrassment (Lipton 1993: 1). In this context, inventing collective nouns for the fun of it would be irreverent, if not social suicide.
Once again, the same content can be understood (or interpreted or theorized) in quite different ways when it is brought into an educative setting, i.e. 'curricularized'. Thus, a curriculum is not just content but a theory or interpretation of the educative potential of content.1 As curriculum, it is content that advances the teacher's and students' pedagogical movement toward some end in view. More generally, then, to take any content into a classroom is to imbue it with social and pedagogical meaning apart from itself. From this perspective, mathematics, science, or history are not in classrooms simply as academic disciplines but rather as school subjects theorized as contributions to a common educative good. The view that curriculum is not just content but an interpretation or theory of content directs attention to the multiple assumptions that possibly underlie the substance and structure of a programme of study.
The curriculum of teacher education
Armed with understandings of narrative theory and curriculum as interpretation, we now turn the spotlight on the teacher education curriculum. The teacher education curriculum that most readers know consists of courses in a variety of subject matters---the content to be taught---and in foundational disciplines that presumably contain information about basic processes involved in teaching and schooling, e.g. learning, motivation, social expectations, organizational and administrative arrangements, historical perspectives, and the like.2 The course of study also includes methods, i.e. specifications and procedures for conducting lessons and prescriptions about how to solve common problems teachers face in classrooms. In their highest form, methods provide novices with ways of thinking about content from the perspective of pedagogy.
The assumptions underlying this curricular frame are fairly transparent: knowing precedes doing; action is a consequence of knowing; the highest form of knowing is propositional. These assumptions lead to an emphasis on front-loading, i.e. on giving prospective teachers as much as we can before they go out into the world. And many conversations about reforming teacher education often end up increasing this loading upfront, as if a teacher will never have a chance to get smart later.
Narrative knowing and curriculum
Most of this content and these assumptions were set in place before scholars knew about narrative and its key role in sense-making. What happens when those scholars take narrative knowing seriously? The key phrase here is that we, as human beings, live storied lives, that we story the experiences we have. Although several stories of any particular experience are possible, it is very difficult to story what we have not yet experienced. Moreover, although experience does not uniquely determine a story, all stories are constrained by the experiences upon which they are forged. But experience is a troublesome, if not unruly, term in teacher education curriculum. Of course, calls for infusing field experience into teacher preparation are pervasive, and student teaching is often seen as the capstone of programmes, especially by students. Yet teacher educators are often ambivalent about experience in the preparatory curriculum and even distrust it. There are, for example, prominent members of the teacher education community who have written of the miseducative consequences of field experience (e.g. Feiman-Nemser and Buchman 1986). This distrust exists for several legitimate reasons, but for present purposes it can be said that this scepticism has led to a underestimation of the potency of direct experience in the stories our students create.
Traditionally, two curricular conceptions---extension and authenticity---seem to carry most of the interpretive weight with respect to experience as teacher education. Extension means that scholars envision experience as a way to concretize and confirm the fundamental propositions they hold about learning, motivation, development, or pedagogical practice. Extension can also mean that experience affords teaching candidates an opportunity to witness an exemplification of a practice and perhaps begin to try out that practice itself. Authenticity is often an implicit curricular argument in teacher education, which means that experience, in some quite indefinite way, brings the real world into preparation, and simulates, again often in unspecified ways, what it is really like to be a teacher.
These are admirable and time-honoured motives and ambitions for understanding the role of experience in teacher preparation. But they suggest that teacher education curricula are still anchored in a autonomous and transportable knowledge base that contains within its boundaries the core propositions needed to teach well. Our job as teacher educators is to get this knowledge base inside the skins of our students as efficiently as possible so they can go forth from our majestic portals and be effective, inoculated, we hope, from the pernicious influences lurking in every classroom corner, every teaching staff, and every educational policy in the land. Thus, with religious zeal we front-load their education with all we know and hold dear and pray that experience in the cruel outside world will not corrupt them.
A narrative perspective, however, suggests a quite different and radical proposition: namely, that the knowledge base for teaching resides in the stories of experience as a teacher. As teachers, in other words, we are not like physicians applying poultices invented by others to real or imagined ailments; rather we are special participants in curricular events which, as events, include or exclude, nurture or neglect, educate or miseducate. This proposition effectively turns this table over by offering a fundamentally different interpretation of experience as content in learning to teach. When we adopt this frame, performance as a teacher emerges as the central organizing element in the preparatory sequence, as the mechanism that drives the storying of becoming a teacher.
Experience as a knowledge base
We are academics, which biases us toward a view that knowledge is primarily a set of propositions in texts which, when mastered, will somehow ennoble people and instill capability, although the behaviour of many colleagues seriously challenges this article of faith. But a narrative perspective suggests that, with respect to the work of teaching, propositions are apprehended---that is storied---as elements of experience. And for the vast majority of students there is simply no real and rich experience of performance as a teacher that can be brought to bear on their teacher education content. So the sense they make of our preparatory activities is not, and indeed cannot, be rooted in teaching performance.
Now our students story what they do in teacher education as they do all of their experiences. But without performance as a teacher they can only fall back on the story-line they know so very well, namely, the studenting narrative. They are very good, in other words, at ferreting out the tasks and managing the risks and ambiguities that naturally surround these curricular events. But, as they have been telling us for a long time, this is not real, this is not being a teacher.
Performance, in this light, becomes the bridge into teaching. All that comes before is anticipation with little understanding. All that comes after is part of a protracted and often astonishing effort to apprehend by storying teaching. Until performance, little can be known about how to be a teacher.
The implication is at once clear: a curriculum based on front-loading, however replete with research-based knowledge or practical wisdom, is doomed to fail, and much of what is heaped on will inevitably fall off. And our students will tell us they were not prepared well enough for the real world of teaching. Teacher education begins when the impact of performance as a teacher sinks in and, therefore, the story of being a teacher can begin to evolve. In this light, teacher education is not something instructors do to prospective teachers but rather something they do for themselves.
The location of teacher education
If experience as teacher is the curriculum of teacher education, what becomes of our programmes? The narrative perspective dictates that prospective teachers engage in teaching performance early and often. But this is not easy to do and slips by the question of what might be done before they teach. Definitive conclusion are not possible here, but some sketch of possibilities is in order.
The analysis so far implies that as teacher educators we inevitably try to inculcate too much too early. A narrative perspective suggests that we invest most of our pre-performance energies in two areas. First, candidates would probably benefit from an orientation to classrooms as settings and as curriculum events. The main purpose here would be to give prospective teachers a language to begin talking about the elements that will constitute their experiences as performers in these environments. It would also prepare them to understand the fundamental management dilemmas they will encounter as they move into classroom practice.
Second, they would likely profit from a close study of lesson stories in the sense that Stigler and Hiebert (1999) talk about them:
Imagine the lesson as a story. Well-formed stories consist of a sequence of events that fit together to reach the final conclusion. Ill-formed stories are scattered sets of events that don't seem to connect. (p. 61)
Rather than having student analyse the syntax of teaching models, a narrative-based curriculum would have students appreciate the grammars of and uncover pedagogical motifs in lesson stories, both well- and ill-structured. Such experiences would at least begin to familiarize them with the pedagogical and curricular issues they must come to terms with as they story their experiences as teachers.
This largely literary orientation to teaching would be followed by student teaching, which, as educators know, is not real teaching. One learns in student teaching how to be a student teacher. But some form of internship in the rhythms and demands of teachers' work is a prerequisite to flying solo.
Then they would teach. Some may object that they need so much more before they can be turned loose. But, as has already been argued, little of the more we as teacher educators might do has much sticking power. So careful mentoring is a necessity. But, once they have taught, once performance as a teacher is part of their experience and they learn to story the act of teaching, they can now be in a position to connect their experience with and interpret in classroom terms a vast range of knowledges about learning, development, motivation, pedagogy, and content that is stored in our heads and books.
The implication is that we truncate the preservice course of study and shift the epicentre of teacher preparation to the now-experienced teacher candidates and to the sites in which these beginning practitioners live and work. This is one of the most daunting challenges of all: structurally moving the bulk of teacher education activities from their traditional academic home in college and university classrooms to a new clinical home in the K--12 classrooms in which beginning teachers are busy storying their experiences as teachers. New institutional forms would need to be invented to bring the academy to the K--12 classroom. This shift is likely to have implications not only for the substance of teacher support efforts but also for who the teacher educators are, how they are rewarded, and how the enterprise of teacher preparation is funded. In a broad sense these ideas are not new; pressures have been around for several years to connect teacher preparation closer to the world of classrooms and schools. But this trend has often retained the same justifications---extension and authenticity---of the traditional teacher education curriculum. What we offer here is a rationale that make this shift both radical and inescapable.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association as part of a Division K symposium on 'Issues in curriculum, instruction, and teacher education', New Orleans, LA, USA, April 2002.
1. We are indebted to the recent work on the German Didaktik tradition (Westbury et al. 2000) for this perspective on the analysis and interpretation of content.
2. Connecting clinical practice to academic disciplines (especially the sciences), often through preparatory curricula, was a common strategy of would-be professions in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The intent was to dignify their work and substantiate claims to esoteric expertise, although the precise relation between the disciplines and practice was frequently unclear. One suspects that the curricular rationale for many of the foundational disciplines in teacher education grew, in part, out of this process. For a discussion, see Doyle (1992).
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