Storytelling is a seemingly universal human activity: its use has spanned both time and culture; it is a prominent feature of our everyday lives, woven into our social and cultural practices in its varied forms.
The narrative is possibly one of the most commonly-utilised tools for communicating information and establishing social understanding. Narratives come in various forms and qualities; they may be real or imagined but are more than just a sequential recount of events: the narrative is a powerful meaning-making device – it can provide structure to our thoughts and experiences, and supports schematic organisation of memory (Bruner, 1990). Bruner (1990:56) emphasises the power of the narrative in ‘framing’: he describes how the narrative is used to make sense of what might otherwise be a chaotic world, and suggests that using narrative to frame our experiences supports the transfer of these experiences into long term memory.
We can see then that stories, in their ability to provide a concrete basis for communicating and interpreting information, experience and ideas, can thus provide us with a powerful tool for learning. But what might the implications be for teacher professional learning? How can we utilise the narrative to develop pedagogical expertise within schools? I propose that by creating a culture of storytelling within schools, we can utilise the narrative to support teachers in making sense of, and disseminating pedagogical knowledge and expertise, and suggest that the narrative can be a powerful tool to facilitate both reflection and development of practice in self and others.
According to Sims et al (2006) ‘narrative learning’ has two components: learning as a noun and learning as a verb. Firstly, as a noun, due to the schematic support they provide, narratives frequently carry information to be learnt and remembered: many stories contain key learning points, morals or messages which will be retained, remembered and utilised in future situations. The second component of narrative learning considers learning as a verb, whereby the activity of storytelling itself provides an opportunity for learning: by narrating an experience, individuals are able to reflect upon and make sense of that experience, leading to an adjustment in their thinking, and learning in situ as a direct result of engaging in the storytelling process. This learning can also be exemplified by the extent to which individuals’ stories develop as they are narrated, often evolving during the telling, or being quickly revised and retold, perhaps as the teller experiences cognitive dissonance and readjusts their thinking.
I suggest that we can utilise this concept of ‘narrative learning’ to support teacher professional learning in schools, and that by creating a culture of trust and encouraging professional dialogue through the medium of narrative, we can establish an environment that draws upon a universally recognised communication device to help teachers to reflect upon, realise and share their professional learning experiences.
Czarniawska (1998:2) suggests that a narrative has three basic features: an original state of affairs, an action or event, and the consequent state of affairs. We might find this useful when considering the use of narrative as a tool for professional learning for teachers; encouraging teachers to talk about their teaching strategies, explaining what was happening in their classroom initially, describing the strategy they implemented, and the change in their classroom as a result of implementing this strategy. By using narrative as a tool, we are not encouraging teachers to reflect in a formulaic or unnatural manner: instead, by embedding a culture of storytelling around classroom practice, teachers are perhaps more likely to engage in the narrative learning process without prompt, and as the opportunities arise.
It is important to consider the concept of plot – this is, what brings the three elements of narrative together: an inference that the action within the narrative led to the change. Now we know that correlation does not necessarily indicate cause, and the use of narrative as a professional learning tool must be mindful of this, but the inferences within narrative certainly offer a starting point for teacher self-evaluation.
We must also remember that narrative does not provide a window to experience and the told narrative is unlikely to mirror the experience as it was initially experienced. Narratives are constructed, creatively authored, rhetorical, replete with assumptions and interpretive (Reissman, 1993:5). They are a construct of the situation in which they are told, and developed through the interactions (both verbal and non-verbal) of both the narrator and the listener. However, just because the narrative is a situational construct, does not mean that it can no longer be reflective and this is its value for teacher professional development.
An added bonus of teachers using narrative to support dialogue around teaching and learning, is that there is learning potential not only for the narrator, but also for those to whom the stories are told. Teachers who hear stories about other teacher’s practice are surely likely to interpret those stories in relation to their own practice, and develop their canon of pedagogical knowledge. Furthermore, the social nature of stories often leads to stories being reciprocated: when a story is told, one is often told in return. There is therefore great potential for narrative learning to ‘snowball’, becoming self-perpetuating as a method for professional learning.
Harnessing the power of narrative as a basis for professional learning within schools
Denning (2001) discusses the narrative as a medium for knowledge transfer, communication and change within organisations. This applies as much to schools as it does other organisations. Stories are frequently utilised by teachers to support communication of curriculum content, but we also need to recognise the opportunities that narrative provides for communication and development of pedagogical knowledge, as considered above.
The reframing of narrative as a tool for professional learning needs to move beyond individual one-off incidents of storytelling. Instead, the use of narrative needs to be recognised as a central and valuable tool for professional learning, with teachers sharing stories as part of a Community of Practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) whereby social interactions lead to both cognitive development, and the development of social competence within that community (Murakami et al, 2008).
Harnessing the narrative as a basis for professional learning within schools as communities of practice would require school leaders to:
- Create a climate of trust where stories are shared and exchanged freely and without judgment, recognising the value of this for both the narrator and the listener on professional learning.
- Acknowledge the potential for learning to take place in situ as the result of the dyadic interaction that takes place.
To further build upon the notion of narrative learning, and to emphasise its potential beyond one-off narrative occurrences, Sims et al (1996) suggest that narrative learning can take the form of stories told in counterpoint. In this they mean that the teller uses a sequence of stories to contribute to a bigger-picture narrative. A typical example of this might be individuals telling a story about something that may have gone wrong (and where they may have appeared as a novice), then quickly contrasting this with a story about a more recent time where they had showed expertise, demonstrating their professional learning and development. This too has the potential to apply to teacher professional learning. Teachers who are telling stories about their lessons (particularly with a trusted colleague) may come back to their stories over time in order to actively demonstrate their growing professional expertise. The narrative of a lesson that has gone badly wrong may well be followed up a few days later with a narrative surrounding a positive change to practice, demonstrating in the second narrative that the teacher has learned and improved from the first, and providing the opportunity for both the narrator and listener to reflect on what that catalyst for change was, and the implications for their practice.
Finally, we can consider the power of stories in establishing a shared organisational identity, and the implications this may have for collective identities and learning within a community of practice that may be established within a school. In many schools, there are stories that are told almost by tradition; these stories may be part of the school’s character, and define to those who hear them: this is what we do or don’t do here. In hearing this type of story, teachers can learn from the shared canon of knowledge about the organisation’s social, cultural, procedural and teaching practices.
If leaders can reframe the narrative, it could be invaluable in establishing a culture of excellence and expertise; it could offer teachers agency and enable them to take control of their professional learning; and ultimately could offer teachers the opportunity to thrive – both collectively, and individually.
Using narrative aligns well with the ‘Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development’ (DfE, 2016):
- The reflective potential of narratives means they have great capacity for focusing on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes;
- teachers can employ evidence and expertise to underpin their narratives, making sense of their experiences by relating them to their pedagogical knowledge;
- storytelling is, in its nature collaborative and offers the opportunity for professional challenge through shared construction and dialogue;
- narratives can develop, be retold and added to over time to contribute to a canon of stories as part of a community of practice, or for an individual’s personal canon;
And finally, narrative has the greatest potential to impact on teachers’ professional learning, only if:
- it is prioritised by school leadership
The cost of using narrative for teacher professional learning is negligible. If used alongside evidence-informed teaching practices and integrated with more formal professional learning opportunities, narratives may offer schools the means and capacity to adapt and develop their practice at a pace which is both manageable (in terms of budget and workload) and rapid enough to make significant positive gains to pupil outcomes, and potentially teacher retention.
There clearly needs to be greater research into how this might be implemented effectively within schools. In the meantime, as the education system moves away from judgemental practices relating to teacher evaluation, I would encourage leaders to look towards more qualitative approaches, with teachers taking an active role in formative evaluation for professional development, and to consider how they might utilise narrative within this to support the development and dissemination of teacher expertise.
Bruner J., (1990) Acts of meaning, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press
Czarniawska B., (1998) A narrative approach to organization studies London, Sage
Denning (2001) The Springboard Woburn MA, Butterworth-Heinemann,
Department for Education (2016) Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537030/160712_-_PD_standard.pdf
Lave J., and Wenger E., (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Murakami K., Murray, L., Sims, D., Chedzey, K., (2008) Learning on Work Placement: The Narrative Development of Social Competence) Journal of Adult Development (2009) 16:13-24,
Reissman C.K., (1993) Narrative Analysis, London Sage
Sims D., Murray L., Murakami K., Chedzey K., (2006) Work Placements as narrative learning: Stories for learning and for counterpoint, International Journal of Innovation and Learning 3 (5):468 – 487