Short Account About Narratives Education Essay

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In this chapter I will be presenting the aims of the study and a short account about narratives: the methodology used to be able to carry out the research. I present also the reasons why I chose this methodology, my interest in carrying such a research and how I carried it out.

Since qualitative researchers emphasize realities which are socially constructed and because they build intimate relationships with the participants they study, I decided to carry out a qualitative research about something which is at heart to me. Differentiated teaching is about providing a fair education for all without excluding any of the students. I wanted to study these teachers, learn how they differentiate instruction, how they deal with the challenges they face and how they grow in relation to all this. The research questions are to be found in the following section.

Aims and Design of Study

The main question put forward by this research was: How do teachers become different through differentiated teaching? From this main question emerged other secondary ones which included:

In what ways did the teachers in this study become committed to this educational pedagogy?

How did the teachers in the study develop professionally?

What were the challenges that they faced in implementing their vision?

How did they strategically change in relation to these challenges?

In order to be able to answer these questions I decided to adopt a narrative approach. In the following sections I will discuss narrative inquiry and the reasons why I decided to adopt such a method of research.

Narrative inquiry

We are social beings who live storied lives. As from the cradle we start hearing nursery rhymes and stories. As we grow up, we become children who start to insert ourselves into a larger story (Hoeg, 2009). Hoeg continues that:

As we progress from infants to adults in a given society or societies, we produce various narrative systems - everything from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen, and the cars we drive tell our stories - and this production is automatic. (p. 2)

We grow into adults who build relationships and interact with other people. Much of what we communicate to each other is done through story narratives (Lê, Coehlo, Mozeiko, Grafman, 2011) - events that happened, gossiping, books we read, films we watch, etc. In fact Williams (2007) cites Barbara Hardy (1968) to show how narratives are ingrained in human lives:

We dream in narrative, day dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. (p. 305)

Narratives are human stories narrating experience. Human action, life and historical existence are themselves structured narratively (Carr 1986 as cited in Webster & Mertova, 2007). Through narratives we organise our experiences into tales of important happenings (Dyson and Genishi 1994 as cited in Webster & Mertova, 2007) and thus they form meaningful connections to our life. Through stories people make sense of their lives. Stories reflect the fact that experience makes people grow, and that people are continuously changing and developing their understandings.

Narrative inquiry is the analysis of life stories. The Canadian researchers Connelly and Clandinin (1990) used the term 'narrative inquiry' for the first time to describe an approach to teacher education that focused on personal storytelling which was developing. Narrative inquiry is a research tool used to investigate how humans experience the environment they live in as perceived through their stories. It is concerned with analysing and criticising the stories we tell, hear and read.

Narrative inquiry means both "phenomenon and method" (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p.2). Narrative shows the experience or the event and the issues of inquiry to be studied. Thus we call the phenomenon as story and the inquiry as "narrative".

Whereas people are storytellers and live storied lives, narrative researchers collect these stories, analyze them and write narratives of human experience. Narratives, unlike other paradigms have the potential of providing researchers with the possibility of breaking the walls and engage in dialogue with diverse participants who have gone through different experiences. Thereby narrative analysis is about how participants interpret things and events in their lives and how we then interpret their interpretations (Reissman, 1993).

Stories about teaching and learning can be particularly noteworthy because of their educational value since these kind of stories are usually intended to help us learn about the phenomenon of instruction, or about the strengths or limitations of the teaching itself (Webster & Mertova, 2007). Furthermore stories of experienced teachers have the "insider knowledge and insider membership" (Ritchie and Wilson, 2000, p. 67, as cited in Olsen & Craig, 2005) to make their stories "appear to be living the socially authorized story or stories" (Olsen & Craig, 2005, p. 163).

Why did I choose this methodology?

Coming from a school culture where there is a strong collaboration among teachers, I have experienced myself all the benefits of telling stories about our work. As a group of teachers we have worked together, sharing lesson plans and resources. Through the stories we told about what happened in our classrooms, we have cried together when we failed our students, shared our concerns and helped each other in difficult times. In doing all this, we have repeatedly told stories and it is through these stories that we have reflected on our teaching, on the practices which we felt were ethically wrong or by which we did not reach our students. Through these reflections we sought to find better solutions to the problems we encountered. After we tried these thought practices and found that they worked with our students, we again, enthusiastically told stories of success which were infectious and made us all try them out. Among other things, all these reflections helped us to grow up, to develop professionally and become better teachers.

Thus when developing my research plan, I found that the narrative approach would fit the aim of my research. Educational research entails what is universally true with regards to issues such as schools, teachers and learners. Practice is another thing - "concrete, immediate, particular and local" (Carter, 1995, p.326). Practice is about how the situations in real classrooms with regards to teaching and learning are perceived. What really interested me was what was really possible - things that other teachers practiced together with their students in concrete situations in their classrooms. Story is a way which helps teachers to organize and make sense of their experiences in the classroom and their understandings of what teaching really entails.

I also wanted to give voice to teachers. For too many years teachers were silenced (Hargreaves, 1996) when researchers sought to accumulate knowledge about teaching, when policymakers formed new reforms, in the way quality teaching can be practiced and in teacher professional developments (Carter, 1995).

Narratives are one way of doing so since they give representation and voice (Cortazzi & Jin, 2009). Research is not merely about asking questions and getting answers (Fontana and Fray, 2005 as cited in Bulpitt and Martin 2010) but it is the sharing of stories and the production of a joint story between participants and researcher Connelly and Clandinin (1990).

I took advantage of the potential of narrative to focus on personal subjective and emotional experiences, on how teachers' professional development in adopting a pedagogy which respects diversity, their commitment to such a pedagogy and its intersection with the stories that they will tell (see Lawson & Parker, 2006). My intention was to elicit teacher narratives which would provide insight on the complex arena where professional development and commitment meet. This research circles around the professional story of the teacher, their work, their dreams, their aspirations, their beliefs, their doubts, their struggles and their disappointments in incorporating differentiated teaching. Through this research I hoped to learn about the forces which made teachers adopt such a pedagogy, adapt it to the everyday situation they live in and how they develop professionally. I embarked on this research project with the intention of using the personal voice creatively and to lead the reader into "the enormous sea of serious social issues" (Behar, 1996, p. 14 as cited in Jessop & Penny, 1999, p. 216).

Reflexivity

Every research is carried out by a human being who has a purpose why to undertake the research (Etherington, 2009). Narrative inquiry, is based on the beliefs and perceptions of those who take part in it (Etherington, 2009; Lawson, Parker & Sikes, 2006). The choice of questions that the researcher makes is also based on his beliefs and on what he finds interesting to investigate. Even while listening to the participants' stories, the interviewer asks questions on the issues that he has at heart. Sometimes he might also share her ideas or stories to instigate other stories or to prod memory. In all this, reflexivity is essential to demonstrate transparency of the data collected:

The term reflexivity is used to describe a researcher's sensitivity to the often subtle ways that their particular location, experience worldview, and assumptions contribute to the shaping the data that is collected and how it is analyzed. (Hunt, 2010, p.70)

A reflexive researcher illustrates her stand point in the research by telling her story in the research to make the reader aware of her beliefs and values which without doubt had a great influence on the process of research (Jessop & Penny, 1998). Since I emphasize the subjective and contextual with regards to participants, I think it would be appropriate to give a little autobiographical detail. After all, as a researcher I play a very important role - that of a social actor and thereby, the practices that I use to carry out this research and my interpretations are influenced by the beliefs and values that I hold (Lawson, Parker & Sikes, 2006).

My interest in differentiated teaching

It was this challenge that triggered this research:

a seven year old girl who cried her heart out and struggled with all her might not to enter my classroom because I thought best to send her to complementary classes,

the ten year old boy who sat silently and passively at the back of a teacher's classroom waiting for dismissal time,

the seven year old girl who studied the reading book by heart so that her peers would never know that she can't read,

the ten year old boy who, blinded by his rage, started to kick and hit hard his peers because he couldn't stand the label 'donkey',

the ten year old cool boy who slumped in his chair bowing his head with shame when I asked him to read a piece of text for me,

the nineteen year old, ex student of mine who asked me if I really believed in his potential when I was his teacher,

the eight year old boy who did not want to go to school because he couldn't learn the tables by heart even though he tried very hard,

the eleven year old boy who looked at me with a silent plea asking me to teach him how to read and write,

and the same eleven year old who held on to my promise (that of teaching him how to read and write) like that boy who is expecting the long awaited dog promised for his birthday.

These kind of experiences which I have lived have left a tremendous impact in me. They have touched me in so many ways. The look of hate, shame, boredom on the children's faces and their cry of pain piercing my heart is still a living memory. My desire to write this thesis stems from these and other distressing situations of students who finish school without mastering the basic skills in literacy and numeracy. The Nwar experience brought me more in touch with students at risk, labelled as low achievers by their class teachers. Living this experience with my Nwar students and their families has made me sensitive to the point that I could feel how painful it was for them in suffering such an injustice.

Moved by this painful situation I vowed to bring to light how teachers change and shift their practice from a traditional to a differentiated one which respects diversity and addresses all students' needs in a class. Thus I decided to study how teachers who practice differentiated teaching develop professionally and from where their commitment to climb an insurmountable mountain (Rock et al., 2008), as many think, originates.

I sought to find what obstacles teachers encounter in changing their pedagogy to make some of them give up and retreat back to the familiar traditional method, whereas others keep on fighting. Another thing which I was after was to see exactly what type of professional development teachers need in order to be able to change their beliefs and become committed to such a pedagogy stemming from fairness and equal opportunities. Using narrative inquiry as a research method, I used the retelling of teachers' lived experiences to see how they develop professionally and to shed light on what type of scenarios teachers are living in their classroom so that policy makers will be able to provide the kind of support teachers need in order to climb the insurmountable mountain (Rock et al., 2008) and make the NCF (MOEEF, 2011) a success.

Limitations and concerns of narrative inquiry

One advantage of narratives is that it provides a detailed account of personal and social life experiences in significant ways. However, this advantage can be "a two-edged inquiry sword", as Connelly and Clandinin (1990, p.10) call it. They continue that, this same criteria which gives rise to significance can be used to falsify the data and present a lie.

Another danger is what Connelly and Clandinin (1990, p.10) call "the Holywood plot" where everything ends well. Researchers must be careful of "the Holywood plot" all the time even when collecting data and during the writing process. During data collection researchers must be careful to the untold stories which Kermode (1981, as cited in Connelly and Clandinin, 1990) calls "narrative secrets". Leitch (2006) explains further that there are certain experiences which are unconscious to the human brain and thus narrators may not be aware of these. Yet, she continues, these unconscious experiences influence the life and identity of the narrator. Thus, in my opinion, researchers must not only analyze teachers' lived experiences but they must also analyze the way they teach, the decisions that they make and the way they develop professionally along the years since these are all closely related to a person's identity (Carter, 1995).

Another disadvantage is that teachers' stories are many times related to the norms of education and society which are currently dominant. These create the context and provide a boundary which does not allow free access to the teacher to speak out her real opinion especially with researchers and authorities.

When giving opinions on topics, like inclusion, that are socially, politically and ethically sensitive, people may be concerned to project, and be associated with, views which cast them in what they consider to be a favourable light. This may mean disguising or even denying what they really think. (Lawson et al, 2006, p. 60)

Narratives can encourage the silenced voice of teachers to spring out by the use of counter narratives (Somers as cited in Jessop & Penny, 1999). By giving various versions, these counter narratives can dispute the dominant "imaginary tale" that is presented by education and social class.

Validity and reliability

An agreed consensus about qualitative research is that it must give information about validity and reliability and ensure that the data collected is credible and trustworthy (Brantlinger et al., 2005). The methods used to show trustworthiness must be in line with the paradigm used to carry out the research (Oliver, 2011). Since narrative inquiry seeks to study individual perspectives and interpretations, it cannot be judged by the same criteria as traditional methods of inquiry (Reissman, 1993; Reissman, 2000). Thus, reliability and validity have to be defined and reconceptualised in a different light for narrative research.

According to Polinghorne (1998) as cited in Webster & Mertova (2007) reliability is considered as how much is the data dependable, whereas validity is considered as how strong and trustworthy is the data analysis. As Reissman (1993, p. 64) puts it, "A personal narrative is not meant to be read as an exact record of what happened nor is it a mirror of a world 'out there'". She continues that narrativization gives a perspective. The facts told are the interpretation of individuals. The same events can be narrated by different persons in a different way because narrators hold different values and they have different interests. They have a goal in mind of what to portray and how to portray it in order to show their point and what they strongly believe in. When participants tell about complex and troubling experiences of the past they can select what to include and what to omit in order to safeguard their current identity.

Reissman (2000) extends this argument by stating that narrators do not always communicate the past as it was but what they do is give a meaning to their past experiences. When we go back in time to recount a story, we try to make sense of these past events by relating them to the present self (Mishler, 1999 as cited in Reissman, 2000) with our current identities which are always changing as time goes by, due to what she calls "turning points".

Thus, all biographical accounts are selected by the narrator. The events and feelings that the participant chooses to tell does not signify that they have been actually lived (Phoenix & Howe, 2010). The way a person is feeling when narrating a story influences the interpretation and meaning that he makes about past experiences (Griffiths & Macleod, 2008).

Hence, trustworthiness in narrative research can be adequately met by the confirmation of the reported stories by the participants (Webster & Mertova, 2007). The facts and interpretations written by the researcher must be analyzed and confirmed by the participants.

Temporality

Narratives are generally thought of as a sequence of events that are related and which develop through time (Clopton, 2011). Human beings change as they grow. Through the telling of their stories, participants relive their stories as they reflect on their past experiences and try to derive meaning from them.

Narrative captures the effort of people to control the course of life by setting goals and taking actions: goals and action presuppose in turn that the future is open to multiple possibilities. (Ryan, 2009, p. 147)

The fact that we live storied lives means that we act as if we are constantly plotting a narrative (Furkenstein, 1993, as cited in Carter, 1995) by gathering experience from a known past. Through these stories we reflect on our past and according to the identity we claim (Furkenstein, 1993, as cited in Carter, 1995), we try to find solutions in order to try to influence our future (Ryan, 2009). Usually the stories we tell about our daily events are filled with uncertainty (Clopton, 2011) but these help us to think about how we are going to act in the future.

Context

In the last few decades, narratives have become more popular especially in educational research since they give voice and representation to a particular group of teachers who very often than not are in minority and whose voice might be ignored or overlooked (Cortazzi and Jin, 2009).

Since narratives are written for an audience, the context from which participants' voices emerge is very important since it helps to give these voices meaning and value (Hargreaves, 1996). Teachers prepare their work and work for the children who are present in their classrooms. Thus context is imperative since teacher experience and knowledge emerge from that context. In other words, since narrative inquiry depends on the context, it necessitates that the context, the characters and their experiences be described in detail by the researcher (Wu & Volker, 2009).

Starting the Research

Entering the field of study was not so difficult to me. This is due to the fact that because I have had various educational experiences in different schools and in different courses that I attended I have met and befriended lots of teachers. Being an outgoing person who loves to make new friends and being in love with my profession has helped me to build good relationships with these teachers and keep contact. Lots of them share my passion for teaching and lots of them are sensitive to injustices. Because of this it was not difficult to find six teachers who differentiate instruction in their daily practices. Here it is imperative to mention that I was interested in interviewing and studying the narratives of those friends who I was sure that they practiced differentiated teaching. One might question, 'How did I know?'.

I am a teacher who loves working in collaborative groups. Sharing good practice and resources between each other has made me aware of which teachers practice differentiated teaching. Moreover, being friends with these six teachers, they knew that I was following a course and was about to work on my thesis. So when I asked if they would help me by letting me interview them, they accepted immediately.

Why did I choose these teacher participants? I chose these teachers to help me carry out my study because I knew that I would learn a lot from the interviews and stories that they would share with me. Apart from being dedicated to their job and to the beliefs (with regards to social justice issues) that they hold, they are energetic teachers who spend most of their free time working and preparing material for the children they teach.

Ethical issues

Before starting my research, I informed the participants what the research will be about, the process in which they are to be engaged and why their participation is necessary (BERA, 2004). I gave them a formal consent form which they signed to show their acceptance in taking part in this study. I assured the participants that they will remain anonymous. In fact all the names used are fictitious. I also assured them that all their responses will remain confidential. I made sure that participants were aware of their rights as participants and they could withdraw from the research at any time.

Building a good relationship with the participants

In order to carry out a good qualitative research it is important to build a good relationship with the participants (Bulpitt & Martin, 2010). Since I knew all the participants from the onset, this was not a problem. It is also imperative to have a clear mind and to be curious in order to be able to ask questions which elicit more stories. The researcher should also have certain qualities which are that of being a good listener and to be able to empathize since storytelling involves a gathering where others listen and empathize (Reissman, 2000) intersection.

Being a teacher who is still learning how to practice differentiated teaching, like the participants, I know the situation they are living in and some of the problems that they might be facing. Thus a reflexive awareness of my 'self' and my bias can help me present myself as a teacher who is still developing professionally. (Bulpitt & Martin, 2010)

All the participants that I interviewed knew that I was reading literature about differentiated teaching. So as not to raise uncertainties I made it clear from the onset of the interview that I did not know everything about practicing differentiated teaching, that they might know how to practice certain dimensions of this pedagogy better than me. I also made it clear that I was asking questions to learn and not to find faults in their practice. In other words, I made it clear that I might have been more knowledgeable then them in theory but not necessarily in practice (Bulpitt & Martin, 2010).

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Interviewing the participants

For the interview I prepared open ended questions which would instigate stories into the areas I wanted them to look into (see Appendix. The questions were prepared in English and Maltese so that the participants could choose the language by which they felt more comfortable to speak. Four of the participants chose to be interviewed in English while two preferred to be interviewed in Maltese. The excerpts taken from the Maltese interviews were translated in English but the original ones are to be found in the appendix.

I asked permission to record the interviews on audio tape. I also asked permission if I could use excerpts from their stories in my research project. All of the participants granted permission. I chose audio recording since it recorded all that was said in accurate detail. If I had chosen to write notes instead of recording them, a lot of what had been said would have been lost. Moreover, the audio tape could also record the tone of the voice and other verbal cues such as laughs and sighs.

One limitation of doing interviews is that body language is not captured by tape recorders (Hunt, 2010). Hunt continues that because of this, interviewers need to have a good memory. They need to observe body language, gestures, facial expressions and the positioning of the body during the interview. Moreover, body language like smiles, nods or silence might also be interpreted by the participant and can influence the way the story is told (Etherington, 2009). Keeping in mind all this and being good at reading body language and facial gestures, I was very observant during the interviews. Knowing that I might forget the way they felt and knowing that I could interpret body language in a different way, I decided to ask there and then about their body language. For example, if I detected sadness in their eyes or in their tone of voice, I asked why they were feeling sad. In this way, they could confirm their feelings and give me the reason behind such an emotion. Observing body language has helped me also in detecting hidden stories which I could then ask about. If I had chosen to conduct my study through questionnaires all this would have been lost.

Also from the onset of each interview, I made it clear that what I wanted was a friendly or a collegial conversation like the lot we have when we meet to have a coffee and not an 'official' interview where the researcher and the participant are on two opposing sides. When people come to interviews, they come with certain expectations (Lawson et al., 2006). They continue that participants are afraid of what questions will be asked, if they know how to answer or if they would give the correct answers. Thus, all the interviews were carried out outside school premises. I left the participants to choose a convenient place for them where the interview could take place. Sometimes we met in coffee shops and other times at each other's houses. I wanted the participants to feel comfortable and at home when they were interviewed. However, the presence of an audio tape recording the conversations made the research informants very ill at ease.

To be honest, during my first interview I felt very excited and I think that it was infectious because even the participant felt anxious to give me the "right" answers. I could feel a certain barrier created by a so-called interview, as if I, as a researcher, was on one side and the participant was on another side. But I got over this initial feeling after the first interview. Then my encounter with the participants was more on a friendly basis. There were times when I realized that at the beginning the interviewees stated one thing to give me a "correct" answer, but as the interview progressed they could feel that they could trust me and they 'confessed' how they really felt about certain things. In particular, I found that when I related my insecurities or my failures as I attempted a certain kind of teaching approach, broke the ice and this opened up to more stories. There were times when I shared a success story and it felt like being back in time, feeling part of a collaborative group at school, where we congratulated each other and uttered enthusiastic 'hoorays'. And from their response, body language and tone of voice I could feel that they felt it too. They were keener to share their experiences, once I broke the ice and recounted some of my stories. It is as if through my stories, they could see back the 'Claudine' they knew - their friend and not the interviewer.

During the interviews I tried not to interrupt the participants with other standardized questions (Reissman, 1993) while they were recounting stories. If I felt that I had to ask an important question I wrote down a brief note during the interview so that I could ask at the end of the story. Sometimes these questions were about some things which were not clear to me, when I wanted them to delve deeper into the events or reflect upon them, or when I wanted to ask about certain feelings that I could detect from their body language.

There were some instances when the participants needed a confirmation of what they were saying by asking questions like, 'Do you understand?'. There were other instances when the participants felt short of stories or they could not remember. In such instances, I gave them some examples of my own experience in order to prod memory.

After the interview, all the participants said that they enjoyed the interviews. One participant who is on parental leave even said that with the interview I made her feel 'school sick'. For the first time, after she had her first born she missed teaching and the classroom. There were others who started to ask me questions about differentiated teaching after the interview. Knowing that I had read literature about it, they wanted to confirm certain practices of their own.

Producing narrative texts and analyzing them

When I finished the interviews, I took the long job of transcribing the audio tapes. As I transcribed the texts, I included verbal cues like the tone of voice, laughter, chuckles and sighs as suggested in Reissman (1993). During the process I also reflected on these cues and jotted down some notes, like interpretations of mine, to make sure that I would not forget when I analyzed the narratives. During this process I also found the need to question certain participants on certain issues which I did not take into consideration during the interview.

Trustworthiness in narrative research can be effectively met by the confirmation of the reported stories by the participants (Webster & Mertova, 2007). Once this process was over, I gave each participant the transcripts so that they could read them and change as they deemed fit or omit certain pieces of information that they did not want to be published. I also questioned the questions I jotted down when I was analyzing the texts to the participants and transcribed their answers which sometimes lead to other stories.

Afterwards, I looked at the research questions and divided the main themes into categories. Then, I looked at the stories, interpreted them and assigned each story to a category. After this process I could compare and contrast the stories. During this process of becoming more familiar with the transcripts and the participants themselves, I found that the research was taking me to other areas which I did not oversee. Again I jotted notes about these issues to include them in the Findings Chapter.

As I was writing the story and giving it my interpretation, again other uncertainties arose. Being short of time, I asked other questions to the participants via email or through chat to verify my interpretations of the stories they gave me. Thus, the writing process took the form of me being the author recounting the stories of the participants, consolidating them with the excerpts of the narrators which contained the words and the voice of the participants.

Conclusion

In this chapter I have presented the aims of the study and the methodology I used to carry out the research. I have also presented my interest in differentiated teaching in order to make the reader aware of the issues that were at heart while doing the research. In the following chapter I present the findings of the study while I attempt to answer the research questions found in the beginning of this chapter.

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