A mockup of the book’s front and back cover

Here’s the latest version of the cover. Soon, I’ll write something about the image (it’s from a painting by Rembrandt), and why we chose it for the cover.

To see it properly, click on the image.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.41.07 am

On writing fiction as an attempted act of scholarship

RomeoJulietPrologueI’m doing my head in at the moment, trying to think about methodology in educational research. This started as a simple blog post which attempted to

  1. describe the project I’m currently working on
  2. ask myself if it’s a valid piece of educational research, or just a lot of fun
  3. wonder aloud whether our project is ‘legitimate academic scholarship’ and if the way we’re approaching this project might be dignified with the impressive sounding word ‘methodology’.

What’s happened, however, is that as I’ve been writing I’ve found myself  asking more and more questions and my thinking keeps getting tangled up. I’ve ditched several drafts.

I’m going to try again.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with three beginning teachers (two in their first year out, one who’s just finished her teacher education course), and we’ve produced a fictional short story. At the moment (it’s not finished) the 8000 word story is called Both alike in dignity, a quote from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. It describes a young pre-service teacher introducing Shakespeare’s play to his class, his mentor teacher’s reaction, and the distressing events that follow. We’re rather pleased with the outcome, though there’s still work to be done before we’re ready to attempt some kind of publication.

How have we got there?

In September of this year, I contacted these three students to see if they’d be interested in being part of a project to write some educational fiction. I described some of the relevant reading I’d been doing (Greene 1995; Stronach and MacLure 1997; Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ; Britzman 2003), and explained to them that I wanted to attempt to write a story, or a series of stories, that would in some way describe classrooms in a way that spoke to the complexity of being a teacher, that troubled simplistic accounts of a beginning teacher’s life. I wanted to look at a teacher’s work in terms of navigating a way through and around competing and intersecting discourses (Britzman 2003), intersecting life trajectories (Massey 2005) and desiring body-minds (Spinoza 1677; Semetsky and Depech-Ramey 2010). We would not set out, I suggested, to demonstrate any particular truth about any set of educational issues, but instead try to produce a creative piece which would evoke visceral responses and perhaps lead to useful conversations and even insights into the lived lives of teachers in schools.

Why fiction? There were two main reasons. The pragmatic reason was so that my colleagues could speak frankly about what they’d experienced without any concern that there might be repercussions for their young careers; we would create a fiction which, while informed by real experiences, transformed these into what Peter Clough calls ‘symbolic equivalents’. The deeper motivation was to draw on what is valued by our own discipline: we were all English teachers and we all believed that the creation of imagined worlds was a valid way of discovering and describing aspects of the world inaccessible to more rational disciplines and discourses (a belief supported by my own background in the ontologies and epistemologies of depth psychology). By writing a story, we felt we were opening ourselves up to discovering something. (And this morning I found a reference to a chapter by L. Richardson called ‘Writing: a method of inquiry’, which I will follow up when I can.)

My three students agreed to be a part of the project, and so we set about creating our story. First we talked together and wrote, them about their experiences and me about what seemed to me to be the emerging themes. I then produced a couple of tentative beginnings to a possible story (we still had no plot line), and we discussed the veracity of the emerging characters. There was a good deal of experimentation at this stage, with me drawing on my collaborators’ writing to create characters and scenes, and my colleagues responding, reacting, suggesting possibilities. Two characters emerged from this process. There was some initial antipathy expressed by some in our group towards these two characters as they appeared in these early versions, so we wrote to each other about how we might flesh them out in a more rounded and sympathetic way, how we might breathe some more convincing life into them.

We still had no plot for our story, and then I remembered an incident that had occurred a year or so ago and which (substantially fictionalised) might provide us with what we were seeking. I wrote a first draft, my colleagues responded,  and an iterative process ensued which saw me producing seven drafts before we were ready to show it to some valued and experienced outsiders. They, in turn, gave us further feedback, which we’re currently working with.

So, in conclusion, while the story was (in the end) written by me, it was a genuine collaboration: the initial inspiration was provided by the actual experiences of my colleagues and drafts of the early sketches and subsequent whole-story drafts were constantly being adjusted, reshaped by their responses and suggestions. While I have been the writer, and while the story has been shaped (largely unconsciously) by my theoretical lenses, it’s a story which has come out of our collaboration in its many forms.


So, to return to my questions: what is the nature of the thing we have produced? Is it, and the process that led to its production, an example of scholarship? Is it research?

Before I try to answer this, I want to return to what I think is a relevant current preoccupation of mine, which is the question of whether English is a discipline (a valid and distinct way of knowing the world, with its own unique methods of inquiry and forms of representation). Bill Green and Phil Cormack (2008) and Robert Dixon (2012) have suggested that English as we encounter it in schools is a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all. I find myself wanting to suggest that this is precisely what is wrong with school English at the moment, and why students – in general – find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it.I’m beginning to think that we need to reclaim its disciplinary status, or to at least ask ourselves what would be different about our teaching of school English if we were to remember that at its core is the claim that to engage imaginatively with the world through what we read and what we write is to know the world in ways unique to the English discipline.

This is an argument which, obviously, I need to think much more about, both to test out its robustness and to tease out its implications. But it’s an important argument in my current thinking about the nature of our story-writing project.

Our writing of this story, it seems to me, is an attempt to use the methods which our discipline values (in particular, the way our discipline claims that an imaginative exploration through story gives us access to aspects of the human denied to other disciplines) in order to understand better the classroom worlds we experience and in which we do our work. The argument here is that the imaginative act of creating a piece of fiction is to draw on a valid disciplinary practice in order to see more of what is.

This imaginative move is not something that can be explained, though folk like Freud, Jung, Winnicott and Hillman have all had a go. It’s just that it seems to be a useful and disciplinary-valued source of insight.

But there’s a related argument which, while I come to no fixed conclusion about it, seems relevant here. Good theory helps us to see more than we would otherwise, and there are at least two theories that have informed my thinking (and perhaps have informed the unconscious imaginative act itself, though I have no way of knowing if this is the case and, if so, to what extent). A Spinoza/Deleuzian theorizing about desiring and relational body-minds informs the underlying ontology of the story, and Doreen Massey’s notions of the nature of space have directed my gaze at the way in which space is the product of relations. Her view of space is my view of classrooms and staffrooms:

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished.

Further, I’d want to make a distinction between research/scholarship that is designed explain what is experienced and that which has as its aim to make visible what was previously underappreciated or only partially seen (Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ). In our story, we are not just attempting to further our own understanding (standing, as we do, on the shoulders of the educational, disciplinary and poststructuralist scholars who have influenced our thinking and helped us shape our methodology); we are also attempting to contribute in generative ways to the thinking of those who might read our story and who might then find themselves seeing new aspects of, and reflecting in new ways on, their own experiences, perceptions and theories.


Barone, T. (2001). “Pragmatizing the imaginary: a response to a fictionalized case study of teaching.” Harvard Educational Review 71(4).

Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. &. Cormack, Phil (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Massey, Doreen (2005). For space. London, Sage.

Semetsky, I. and J. A. Depech-Ramey (2010). “Jung’s Psychology and Deleuze’s Philosophy: The unconscious in learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory online.

Spinoza, B. (1677). The Ethics. London, Everyman.

Stronach, I. and M. MacLure (1997). Educational research undone: the postmodern embrace. Buckingham, Open University Press.

The ethnographic challenge

Of his paintings, Picasso famously said: ‘the artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies’ (1923:7). This is what I am seeking to do with the stories in this section, to use literary techniques and the sources of research data to create the truths of professional and personal lives. Thus the purpose of the book is identical with the central backbone of any art/istic endeavor, which is to tell the truth as one sees it. (p17 of Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

I’ve been reading more of Peter Clough’s book, which is centred around five fictional short stories, each set in a school and each deeply unsettling (to me, at least).

Here, for example, is how the story ‘Rob’ begins:

When Rob Joynson was 43 he came into school on a Tuesday morning much as usual; and passing at 10.40 by a maths class taken by Michelle G. – a probationer of 23 – and hearing terrible noise; and seeing through the window a boy at the back fetch a fat gob on Michelle’s back as she walked down the aisle smiling, smiling too, too nervously, her hands doing ‘Down, please: down, down’ at the noise; seeing this marbled yellow gob on Michelle’s ordinary blouse on her decent body, Rob Joynson rushed into the room and to the back and took the boy – Mark something – by the ears, both ears, and pulled him up out of – through almost – his desk and repeatedly smashed his head against a chart of tessellations on the wall. And Michelle pulled at him from behind and screamed, and he twisted the boy down by his ears and pushed at him with his foot, kicking until he was quite under the desk. Then Rob started to cry and there was a terrible silence … (37)

They are complex stories, and full of tensions and ethical challenges. There are no simple truths about either the issues or the characters.* These are ‘ethnographic operas’ that I imagine Deborah Britzman applauding, where characters negotiate (always problematically, often unconsciously and inarticulately) competing worlds.

To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible. Within any given culture, there exists a multiplicity of realities – both given and possible – that form competing ideologies, discourses, and the discursive practices that are made available because of them. It is within our subjectivities that we can make sense of these competing conditions even as these competing conditions ‘condition’ our subjectivity in contradictory ways. (Britzman 2003, 71)

Peter Clough’s stories are clearly evidence-based. In his book, he is explicit about where the evidence came from, and how he used the evidence to create these fictional short stories. But the evidence isn’t drawn upon to prove anything. He argues that narratives and fictions seek to evoke rather than to explain (73) and need to be judged according to their verisimilitude rather than their verifiability (15).

When I reflect on the impact his stories have on me as a reader, I can see how this kind of educational writing achieves something that more conventional research or scholarship cannot do. It takes me behind the scenes, into the lived lives of people involved in educational settings. It troubles any superficial notion I might have that solutions to difficult policy issues is simple, because lives are at stake, and lives are complex. Conflict in real life is not only between generations, classes, ethnic groups or economic interests; conflicts in real life are also internal to individuals. Outcomes (tragic or otherwise, though all of Clough’s stories have tragic outcomes) are not just the result of one group having more power than another, but of one set of an individual’s inclinations proving too strong for another set.  The ethnographic opera is played out on many different levels, within and between characters, within and between groups.

Translating life’s realities as lived by men and women into story, and doing it in such a way as still to be believed, is the  ethnographic challenge. (64)


Clough quotes Stronach & MacLure 1998:57 as follows: “One goal [of educational research] must be to produce accounts which deny the reader [the] comfort of a shared ground with the author, foreground ambivalence and undermine the authority fo their own assertions.”


Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

Cogs in a machine: the language of teacher professional standards

Patrick Mackie [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The words and metaphors we hear create pictures in our minds which can either expand or limit what we perceive and therefore experience. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” [Sapir 1929 The Status Of Linguistics As A Science p. 69]. I’ve tried before to use this idea to understand better some of the confusion around the relationship between theory and experience.

Last week I read an article which outlined the ways in which the concept of teacher professional standards is both shaped and limited by the language employed in official documents. One consequence of this, the authors argue, is to marginalize the kind of professional reflection which theorists like Schon and Britzman advocate, and which we (like most education faculties) teach and practise.

The article, published last month online, is by Mary Ryan and Terri Bourke, and is called “The teacher as reflexive professional: making visible the excluded discourse in teacher standards.”

Teachers are discursively repositioned [in official UK and Australian documents analysed by the authors] as non-experts, the last in the line of a management hierarchy with central office at the top, descending to regional offices and then to school principals. Educational decisions are made elsewhere and it is up to the teacher to work effectively and efficiently in a standardised accountable environment (Leaton Gray & Whitty, 2010). Managerialism sees teachers as unquestioning supporters and implementers of a competency-based, outcome-oriented pedagogy related to the world of work. [2]

[Teachers] are expected to ‘Use the National Professional Standards for Teachers…to identify and plan professional learning needs’ (p. 18). Reflection in this document is represented as a controlled activity, with ambiguous definitions and purposes. None of the standards suggest that reflexivity or deep reflection are priorities, nor do they identify strategies to support teachers to reflect in deep and transformative ways to develop satisfying and sustainable practices for both their students and themselves. [8]

… governments in Australia and the UK are carefully attempting to shape teachers and the teaching profession through behavioural-heavy standards, with little regard for the attitudinal, emotional and intellectual dimensions of the trustworthy professional [11]

Last week I met with seven first year out teachers to talk together about their experiences. They described many things: the isolation they experienced, the tiredness, the breakthroughs, their battles to keep hold of ideals in the face of bureaucratic pressures, the students who challenged and sustained them, their love of their disciplines, the restorative pleasure they got from meeting together like this.

One of them – a beginning teacher already making a mark in her school for her disciplinary passion and fierce commitment to both standards and students – talked about how oppressive she found the bureaucratically-imposed teacher standards, which required her to tick boxes which paid no regard to the actual teaching she was doing with real students. She despaired, she told us, when she saw colleagues attending to the box-ticking at the expense of their classes.

Ryan and Bourke are suggesting that a part of this teacher’s despair is the attitude towards teachers implicit in policy documents on teacher standards.

 [T]hese documents metaphorically represent teachers as cogs in the bureaucratic machine, who need to be told what to do, what to know and how to be a ‘good’ teacher, with little acknowledgement of the complex subjective and objective influences on teachers’ work. [10]


Ryan, M. and T. Bourke (2012). “The teacher as reflexive professional: making visible the excluded discourse in teacher standards.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI:10.1080/01596306.2012.717193.

Putting students at the centre

I had a bit of an epiphany last Friday.

I had spent the day with seven of last year’s Grad Dip cohort. I had just said something to the group about my attempts to use the thinking (the theories) of various writers – living and dead – to help me understand more about their experiences as first-year-out teachers, and one of the seven responded roughly as follows:

You’re putting us and our experiences in the centre. That’s really interesting. I’ve always thought of those writers as being at the centre, with us trying to understand their thoughts, their perspectives. The focus is usually on them. But you’re putting the focus on us. You’re reading the theory to better understand what’s going on for us.

For some reason, this was an important revelation for me. Looking back, I can see how this has been my preoccupation and focus for some time, but until this teacher said it like this, in this semi-public forum, it hadn’t quite registered.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve tinkered with representing this visually.

At the centre of my current research interest are the experiences of my current and past students, as the former go out on their pracs and the latter begin their teaching careers.


The red circles represent their experiences, often unsettling and sometimes distressing. In our Grad Dip course, we help our students make sense of an unsettling experience by making it the focus of a major assignment; they describe the event and then draw on what they’ve been learning on our course to delve more deeply into it, to see beyond appearances to what might have been going on beneath the surface. We ask them, in other words, to explore the relevance of theory.

We don’t ask them to do this on their own, either when at uni doing our course or in their first years as beginning teachers. Conversations with mentors – university staff, mentor teachers in their schools and other colleagues –  are a part of the process.

I am one of those mentors, and a part of my project is working with living scholars – occasionally directly, and mainly through their writing – to deepen my own thinking about what these students are experiencing.

I encourage my students to read many of these writers, and will continue to do this. But I realized, as I was doing this part of the drawing, how it was more important to me that I read these writers, that my thinking is animated by the ideas of these scholars, that it is me that is publicly and tentatively exploring these theories to understand what is going on.

I am reminded here of Donald Schon’s response to the Carl Rogers extract I quoted in my last blog post:

From the evidence of this example, I would say, not that Rogers has lost all interest in being a teacher, but that he has reframed teaching in a way that gives central importance to his own role as a learner. He elicits self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections (however absurd they may seem) and then, when others criticize him, by refusing to become defensive. As he expresses his own uncertainties and convictions, emphasizes the “merely personal” nature of his views, and invites and listens to the reactions of others, he seeks to be literally thought-provoking. He believes that the very expression of thoughts and feelings usually withheld, manifestly divergent from one another, has the potential to promote self-discovery.

So, I read the contemporary writers listed in the image above to help me to think. But it’s not just them that I read. Philosophers,  particularly some of the greats who have written about epistemology and ontology, are a part of the pantheon that I keep returning to.


So that is a visual representation of the kind of thinking that my former student’s response has stimulated. In a sense, nothing new has emerged from it; however, the beginnings of some order seem to be emerging out of the rather chaotic thinking of the past months.

Thank you, Libby, for your observation on Friday.

There is no passion without the other’s passion

Two co-authors and I have recently had a submitted article (called Doubt and disillusion as a stage in becoming a teacher) sent back to us for ‘extensive rewriting’ because ‘the implications for teacher education are not drawn out strongly enough’. Though it was hard to take when I first read the feedback, it has, as usual, been a good challenge.

To help me think about these implications, I’ve just read a difficult and provocative article by Britzman (Teacher education as uneven development: toward a psychology of uncertainty.” International Journal of Leadership in Education, 2007, 10 (1): 1-12) and want to get some thoughts down before they disappear.

Teacher education, Britzman says, is a process full of uncertainty, an experience which is necessarily distressing and usually resisted.

… teacher education is a hated field; no teacher really loves her or his own teacher education. They may soften this rage without a thought by saying, ‘They didn’t prepare me for the uncertainty’. (8)

Drawing on the work of Maxine Greene, Donald Winnicott, William James, Hannah Arendt and Wilfred Bion, Britzman suggests that the reasons for this are psychological, social and sociological.

From Donald Winnicott, she borrows the notion that from the moment of birth until we die, we are never complete, that we’re always dependent on others, and that this inevitably creates vulnerability, uncertainty and anxiety.

Winnicott (1960/1996) proposed ‘there is no such thing as an infant’ (p. 39). He did so to remind his colleagues the infant comes with caregivers, then toys and the objects that make an infant. Our infancy is made as a relation to others. … There is no such thing as development unless we can begin thinking with, what Winnicott (1970) called in another context, ‘the fact of dependence’ (2).

From William James she cites his ‘big idea’ that it is not in the nature of the mind to be either empty (ready to be filled with knowledge) or stable (developing steadily according to predictable developmental patterns). Instead,

The mind works through the stream of consciousness, through association, and so it is always in motion. The mind will not hold still. This complexity, he said, will be an obstacle to education. For if attention is always fleeting attention, awareness of this psychology makes the teacher’s work difficult. (5)

The experienced teacher, then, plays a vital role in drawing the reluctant and distracted student into the business of learning.

He was not afraid to suggest the need for the teacher’s authority…. The mind that knows, he warns, resists being known…. The mind, after all, is an inter-subjective relation, not an ideal or a thing to fill with knowledge. Good night Descartes: even as we need our own mind to know this, there is no mind without the other’s mind. There is no passion without the other’s passion. (6 )

From Maxine Greene, Britzman uses the idea of the preservice teacher is always in an uncertain state of becoming, having to think him or herself into the unfinished work of attempting to be.

She proposed the teacher as an incomplete project, as unfinished, as in the process of becoming a teacher with others. If the teacher chooses to become a critical subject, she supposed, what is critical only emerges when the teacher understands herself or himself as subject to uncertainty. Uncertainty resides within the acts of a self-committed to becoming. (3)

Britzman uses Hannah Arendt to shift the focus from the nature of the mind or the self to the nature of the world. The teacher, says, Arendt, knows the world, knows that the world is flawed and transient, but also takes responsibility for inducting the student into this imperfect and uncertain world.

Arendt turns to literature and quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet complained about existence as such when he said: ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’ (p. 192). Arendt’s conclusion still stuns: ‘Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home. Because the world is made by mortals it wears out and because it continually changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. (7)

And finally Deborah Britzman turns to Wilfed Bion, the psychoanalyst and philosopher, who suggested that life brings us face to face with our painful emotional experience of helplessness, dependency and frustration (9), from which we instinctively recoil. We then either resist learning by denying feelings of being undermined  …

The insecurity is expelled and returns in the form of bad students, bad grades, bad theory, bad university, and bad methods.(9)

… or we accept that

thinking is a way to render valuable one’s emotional experience. (9)

She quotes Bion’s words as follows:

Learning depends on the capacity for the container [by which he means the capacity to hold doubt and not knowing without evacuating the bad feelings this involves] to remain integrated and yet lose rigidity. This is the foundation of the state of mind of the individual who can retain his knowledge and experience and yet be prepared to reconstrue past experiences in a manner that enables him to be receptive of a new idea. (quoted p9)


Learning is tough, then, and necessarily involves coming to terms with uncertainty and doubt. Not learning is often the preferred option. Britzman finishes the article with a brief summary of the postmodern university, the place where ‘the idea of knowledge as capable of training minds and as bringing up of culture (bildung) is now obsolete’ and where ‘meta-narratives have worn out’ (10).

With this new instrumentalism comes a new definition of the high speed student. Learners must become adept, flexible, and able to judge knowledge in terms of its use value, its applicability to real life concerns, and its prestige. But this means that skills supplant ideas, technique is confused with authority and responsibility, and know-how short circuits the existential question of indeterminacy.

The expansions of multinational and now global corporations into every corner of our lives have terrific force in the university. Students, too, are consumers; they judge the competency of their education rather than their own efforts. (10)

It’s a bleak picture she paints. How can we think our way into some accomodations with the facts of uncertainty and doubt in such a climate?

I’m left with a supplementary question. If, as Britzman and her cluster of quoted thinkers have suggested, students need teachers to help them cross difficult thresholds (an idea closely connected to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, around which so much of our present understanding of good pedagogy revolves), where is the movement in teacher education to increase the quality time teacher educators have with their students, both during their courses as doubts and uncertainties surface, and in their first years in the classroom? Or is the trend in the other direction, with an increase in distance and online education, and a growing list of roles and responsibilities for teacher educators if they’re to meet their Professional Development Review outcomes?

There is no passion without the other’s passion. But it seems that present realities mean that the other’s passion is not fully available.

Uncanny and creepy detours

Britzman’s ‘Practice Makes Practice’

I can only read Britzman in little chunks. Her phrases and sentences are so dense with meaning, so evocative of things experienced and thought, that I find myself wanting to copy out whole paragraphs or memorize phrases. This is how I’ve read a number of the ‘big’ thinkers: Nietzsche, Charles Taylor, Jung, James Hillman; their pithily expressed thoughts seem to release something inside me that’s felt constrained and only partly accessible. It’s hard work, but quite exciting.

This morning I’ve read four pages from Practice Makes Practice. In this short section (called ‘From socialization to subjectivity’), it’s as though Britzman has been listening to conversations I’ve had with Rachel about identity, or with Phil and Rachel about the metaphors/narratives that guide our thinking and experience, or with Simon about negotiating a path between neoliberal dictates and good pedagogy, or with Hannah and Libby about the painful business of creating a teacher-self. It’s as though Britzman has been listening to these conversations, has seen connections between them, and is wanting to say something that helps me see these connections.

She talks, first of all, about four chronologies in the process of becoming a teacher: the first being our school and undergraduate experiences; the second our teacher education; the third our professional experience as a preservice teacher; and the fourth our entering the profession as a new teacher. These four experiences are not simply times where our identities are being shaped; there’s a dialogic process happening, where the narratives we construct around what we experience create the meanings we then experience. Britzman, as usual, puts it so much more pithily.

Each of the above chronologies represents different and competing relations to power, knowledge, dependency, and negotiation, and authorizes frames of reference that effectuate discursive practices in teaching. The sense we make of each chronology depends upon the discourses we take up. (p70)

So, for Britzman, culture is not this static force that ‘enculturates’ the passive and powerless individual. It’s not something that happens to people.

Deborah Britzman

Culture is where identities, desires, and investments are mobilized, constructed, and reworked. It is the site where antagonistic meanings push and pull at our sensibilities, deep investments, and relationships with others. And consequently there is not one monolithic culture that communicates unitary meanings. Circulating within and persuading any culture are an array of contesting and contradictory discourses that vie for our attention.

To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible. Within any given culture, there exists a multiplicity of realities – both given and possible – that form competing ideologies, discourses, and the discursive practices that are made available because of them. It is within our subjectivities that we can make sense of these competing conditions even as these competing conditions ‘condition’ our subjectivity in contradictory ways. (71)

[‘To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible.’ This reminds me of Rachel’s response to my thought about a unifying metaphor to explain some of our students’ resistance to our teaching. I doubt that everyone is labouring under exactly the same conscious/semi-conscious metaphor.  To be honest, that sounds like a hideous idea.  Even on an unimaginative day I would come across hundreds.’]

I want to think a lot more about Britzman’s words: The sense we make of each chronology depends upon the discourses we take up.

What influences the decisions preservice teachers make about which discourses to take up or inhabit?

Obviously there are lots of them, but I wonder if we underestimate, and consequently undervalue, the role of teacher educators in influencing our students. I wonder this partly because of the move towards reducing face-to-face time with students and increasing online teaching. As I was typing this sentence, an email came through about moves by universities to explore more actively the possibilities of distance and blended education. I’m not against the move to work out how to work well online; I’m strongly in favour, actually. But I sense that we’re making this move while at the same time letting what we know about Vygotsky’s ZPD become what we preach rather than what we practise. Our students need to have space and time to ‘make sense of the chronologies’, but they need to do this within zones of proximal development, which means having close contact with others (teachers and other students) who can help them examine assumptions and add complexity and nuance to current unmediated discourses. This happens when there is time and space for face-to-face conversation and the forming of real relationships.  As I’ve been reading our recent assignments, I see evidence of this happening for some, but not enough, and I suspect that part of the reason is a lack of sufficient face-to-face time.


Britzman goes on to talk about how, especially in the third and fourth chronologies, the young teachers have to negotiate three kinds of narratives: the official, the pragmatic and the cultural. It’s in the cultural  where young teachers are most actively creating their own guiding discourse, as they negotiate the challenges of the first two.

…the official story is often deconstructed by the practical story and it is this rupture that permits the construction of cultural stories. Cultural stories may concern how the student teacher ‘got over’, how her or his pedagogy or classroom routines resisted official perspectives, and moved beyond practical constraints to create a ‘free zone’ of democratic learning. Such stories need not be victorious. They can narrate as well the more painful and private moments when student teachers fall back on useless routines, become confused and anxious when things do not go as planned, or become undone by how their classroom students understand them. To study the cultural stories of student teaching, then, is to study the uncanny, the creepy detours, the uneasy alliances, and the obvious clashes between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses. (73)

I’m wanting to think more about ways in which we teacher educators can play a more effective role both during the time they’re with us on our teacher education courses and in our graduates’ first years in the classroom. I think we need to rethink ways we can be  helping them to negotiate ‘the uncanny, the creepy detours, the uneasy alliances, and the obvious clashes between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses’.

Models of classroom management: a misleading objectifying of experience?

Professor Kerri-Lee Krause

‘To survive in the classroom, every teacher needs to have a clear, well-thought-out plan that provides an effective framework for maintaining discipline’ (Krause, 2006, p. 458)

Every year, my education students ask for classroom management skills to put in their toolboxes. ‘Please show us what works, what’s tried and tested and can help me survive the challenges of difficult students,’ they say. I remember feeling the same myself when I first started teaching in the early 70s, and the awful feeling of being in a classroom and feeling totally unprepared to deal with what was happening.

So, to help alleviate the students’ anxiety, I have in the past used Professor Krause’s three models of classroom management in my unit, and earlier this week, as part of my preparing for the new year, I drew up the following mindmap to share with the students.

Models of classroom management (Krause)

But how useful are models like these? Do they help student teachers begin the process of gaining the pedagogical skills and knowledge that will help them run their classrooms? Or is the claim that every teacher needs a well-thought out plan in order to survive misleading?

Professor Deborah Britzman

A second teacher education Professor, Deborah Britzman, seems to think it’s the latter.

… normative notions collapse the distinction between acquiring pedagogical skills and becoming a teacher by objectifying experience as a map. In this discourse, everything is already organised and complete; all that is left to do is to follow preordained paths. (Britzman, 2003, p. 30)

My own experience as a teacher tells me that following preordained paths does not work. It didn’t work if I decided that I’d ‘just be myself’ in the classroom (the ‘self’ I thought I knew suddenly felt unknown and unstable once I found myself in unfamiliar territory); it didn’t work if I tried to be someone else either. What worked with one group of students would fail utterly with a second; what worked one day in first period fell flat the next day in the last period of the day.

John Holt, author and teacher

I remember John Holt (an early educational hero of mine) writing in one of his books that teaching was like batting in baseball; you could count yourself a success if one in five attempts produced a ‘home run’.

Krause’s approach reduces an enormously complex field into something graspable. It’s an approach that has the potential to reduce anxiety by naming different ways of being in the classroom. It gives preservice teachers the opportunity to ask important questions as they prepare for their careers. Is there just one way to teach, the way I experienced as a student? What teaching styles best accord with my values? What are my aims as a teacher, and what models might best support those aims? Can I learn from many models so that I have the capacity to adapt in different contexts?

Britzman’s approach, though, is radically different. Where Krause seeks to to simplify (and therefore reduce anxiety),Britzman wants to complexify and problematize (26).

For those who … enter teacher education, their first culture shock may well occur with the realization of the overwhelming complexity of the teacher’s work and the myriad ways this complexity is masked and misunderstood (p. 27) … learning to teach is not a mere matter of applying decontextualized skills or of mirroring predetermined images; it is time when one’s past, present, and future are set in dynamic tension. Learning to teach – like teaching itself – is always the process of becoming: a time of formation and transformation, of scrutiny into what one is doing, and who one can become (p. 31).

I agree with Britzman. Krause’s models, it seems to me, take us into territory full of  unsupportable generalisations and over-simplifications.

So why do I continue to include them as part of my unit? It’s true that the discussions we have about them in tutorials, and the questions they raise, seem helpful. But could it be that the real reason is that I’m trying to reduce anxiety (my own and my students’) by teaching something concrete, whether or not it’s actually useful?


I’m hoping that some of my former students will read this blog post and comment on their experience of the Krause models.


Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Krause, K. (2006). Managing behaviour and classrooms Educational psychology: for learning and teaching (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Victoria: Thomson.

Ethnographic opera

Deborah Britzman

In Chapter 7 of the 2003 edition of Practice Makes Practice, Deborah Britzman asks questions of her own ethnographic studies.

… the ethnographic promise of a holistic account  is betrayed by the slippage born from the partiality of language .. .From the unruly perspective of poststructuralism, ethnography can only summon, in James Clifford’s terms, ‘partial truths and ‘fictions.’ …These positions undermine the ethnographic belief that reality is somehow out there waiting to be captured by language. (244)

Her solution is to

borrow discourses and tack them onto other discourses …  my narrative was to write a Rashomon of student teaching, an ethnographic opera where voices argued, disrupted, and pleaded with one another; where the high drama of misunderstanding, deceit, and the conflicting desires made present and absent through language and through practice confound what is typically taken as the familiar story of learning to teach. I tried to write against the discourses that bind the disagreements, the embarrassments, the unsaid, and the odd moments of uncertainty in contexts overburdened with certain imperatives. I tried to do this by provoking and contradicting multiple voices: the ethnographic voice that promises to narrate experience as it unfolds, the hesitant voices of participants who kept refashioning their identities and investments as they were lived and rearranged in language, and the poststructuralist voices that challenge a unitary and coherent narrative about experience. 247

And her rationale for this approach is to remind us of the purpose of this kind of research, which is not to authenticate a particular truth but to trace ‘but not without argument, the circulation of competing truths’ (251).

The reason we might read and do ethnography, then, is to think the unthought in more complex ways, to trouble confidence in being able to observe behavior, apply the correct technique, and correct what is taken as a mistake. Ethnographic narratives should trace how power circulates and surprises, theorize how subjects spring from the discourses that incite them, and question the belief in representation even as one must practice representation as a way to intervene critically in the constitutive constraints of discourses. 253

Writing ethnography as a practice of narration is not about capturing the real already out there. It is about constructing particular versions of truth, questioning how regimes of truth become neutralized as knowledge, and thus pushing the sensibilities of readers in new directions. 254


I find this both reassuring and unsettling.

It’s reassuring because I think this is what I’ve done in my own writing, though without the sharp self-awareness and introspection that Britzman is so good at. I’ve written case studies with competing viewpoints from different perspectives, ethnographic opera.

But it’s also unsettling. Isn’t there something in all of this that is unsaid? When we write this kind of ‘ethnographic opera’, we make decisions about which voices to include, how to present them, and we make judgments about structure and balance and tone. Britzman says all this; ‘It is about constructing particular versions of truth’.

But what she doesn’t say is how this differs from writing fiction. Presumably she is using her records of actual conversations and actual observations, and she is not consciously editing these to present a particular point of view … yet she must be. I do. I can’t see how you can do a piece of ethnographic research without doing this.

And once you’ve started down that (very useful) track, where is the line between, on the one hand,  making decisions about (say) form and, on the other,  inventing dialogue, especially when in the end one’s purpose is to ‘think the unthought in more complex ways’ or ‘push the sensibilities of the readers in new directions’?

I think in all this I’m wanting to make the case for fiction, rather than wanting to cast doubt on Britzman’s approach, which I find stimulating and liberating. Perhaps I’m just wanting to go a bit further than she seems to be wanting to go. If all poststructuralist ethnographic research can be seen as ‘degrees of fiction’, what stops us from creating composite characters and inventing scenes?


I’d welcome comments from researchers or writers more experienced than I.