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Moving from the personal to the political in teachers' reflective practice

Greer Cavallaro Johnson & Elizabeth Stevens
This paper reports on a study that focuses on pre-service and in-service teachers' reflective practice by asking the core question, 'Can a new approach, generated from aspects of post-structuralism, assist pre-service teachers and experienced teachers in moving to more critical reflection?' It reports a series of observations as findings. These observations are based on a multi-layered analysis of teachers' visually represented practices, and their talk with a researcher about those practices. Brief analytic examples explicate the findings, which indicate that teachers' beliefs and assumptions about their profession might be disrupted through the reflective practices proposed here.

Finding ways of improving professional standards in the workplace is a current concern nationally and internationally. Within education, teacher reflection has been promoted as one means of monitoring the quality of performance, and narrative inquiry, as opposed to scientific and instrument testing, has long been considered an appropriate means of reflection in and on action (Schön 1983, 1987). Since the 1980s, teachers' written and spoken narrative accounts, including journals (Bain, Ballantyne, Packer & Mills 1999), have provided a major source of data. Telling or writing a personal narrative has been seen as a means for teachers 'to become better acquainted with their own story ...' (Conle 2000, p. 51). Others have shown how narrative accounts and journals have encouraged the use of the personal voice and sought to use the telling of the narrative to gain a fuller understanding of professional actions and intentions (Goodfellow 2000). The narrative inquiry approach to reflective practice has often taken the view that the language of reflection is transparent, and practice has been critiqued often in terms of individual personal growth.


The study reported here attempted to provide an alternative means of documenting and understanding professional practice in order to inquire into how teachers reflect on practice using visual and oral narratives, and how these reflections can be informed by poststructural analysis. It did so by asking the core question, 'Can a new approach, generated from aspects of post-structuralism, assist pre-service teachers and experienced teachers in moving to more critical reflection?' The study demonstrates a collaborative move by two cohorts of teachers-one pre-service and one experienced-and a researcher, to account for not only the personal voice, but also political voices, through narrative inquiry.

The significant conceptual shift made in this study is that narrative language is not transparent and that teacher research based on narrative inquiry must question the 'truth' status of teacher narratives beyond notions of personal growth, and seek multiple critical (re)readings from a variety of analytic approaches. To this end the interpretation of the narrative genre, the vehicle for reflection, has been extended to include visual language as well as the more familiar written and spoken text.

Traditionally at the conservative end of the research spectrum, narratives have been treated as truthful-even confessional and cathartic-accounts of personal and professional experience. This study is situated at the other end of the spectrum where narrative understandings are reconstituted through a theoretical conceptualisation of narrative as political praxis (Langellier 1989). It used multiple analytic methods in order to re-read the common-sense personal interpretations of written and visual narratives offered by the two cohorts of teachers. By investigating teachers' written and visual narrative reflections about practice, the aim is to move from a focus on the personal so as to gain an understanding of teaching experience from a socio-political or ideological perspective.

This research builds on theoretical resources related to reflective practice. Johnson (1996, 1997) has situated reflective practice in three paradigms. The first paradigm, personal growth, has an individual focus and involves the progressive acquisition of stages from novice to expert (Feiman-Nemser 1983, Fuller 1969, Fuller & Bown 1975, Tardif 1985, Zahorik 1986). The second paradigm retains a focus on personal growth and is characterised by the critical dimension provided in the work of Zeichner and Liston (1987), who in particular have directed their efforts towards enabling beginning teachers in their teacher-education programs 'to develop the pedagogical habits and skills necessary for self-directed growth to reflect on practice and ideological constraints and encouragements embedded in the classroom, school and social context in which they work' (p. 23).

Britzman (1986) provides a bridge between the second paradigm and a more radical approach to teacher reflection, a third paradigm, when she argues for a reconceptualisation of school teaching as a social rather than as an individual practice, thus liberating the teacher 'to challenge her institutional biography' (p. 53). Further research with teachers, using poststructuralist theory, has extended the parameters of critical reflection, in so far as it acknowledges that teachers operate from a position in which power and knowledge influence institutional biography (see Johnson 1996, 1997, Smyth 1992).


In this two-year study funded by the Australian Research Council Large Grants Scheme, 19 final year pre-service teachers and seven experienced practising teachers from rural and metropolitan Queensland-selected to represent a range of teaching areas-produced individual visual narratives (picture books) dealing with some aspect of their professional practice. The choice of topic for documentation was open. Subsequently, the teachers were interviewed about their picture books and these audio-taped interviews were transcribed.

The interview protocol was designed according to a two-stage methodology. Stage 1 encouraged the teachers' use of the personal voice and narrative truth in accounting for their intentions in including specific incidents in the picture book. Stage 2, the more innovative stage of the interview methodology, guided the teachers to re-read their practice in terms of the political identities and cultural assumptions they take as givens in their first readings. In other words, the interviewees were asked to re-consider the political implications of the incidents they represent, with socially critical questions such as 'Whose interests are served by this version of events?'

The interview protocol (obtainable from the authors) contained prompts for the two stages. The rationale for using such a methodology for reflection is to encourage teachers to challenge the notion of fixed realities and identities and question whose interests are served by retaini ng the status quo.


The study's design enables the analysis to extend the aim of stage 2 of the interview protocol and provides further guidance for teachers seeking to deepen their understanding of their work within the institutional context: to read their work resistantly and question if, and why, the teaching world needs to operate in fixed ways. To date, four methods of analysis have assisted in interpreting the data. The methods are membership categorisation analysis (MCA), conversation analysis (CA), visual analysis (VA) and critical discourse analysis (CDA).

MCA provides a means for explicating how visual narrative and a teacher's talk about the visual narrative can produce understandings of moral orders. This process depends on using the strategies offered by CA, regarding how the talk works turn by turn to locate 'the central categories (of people, or places, or things) that underpin the talk' (Baker 1997, p. 142). Baker argues, 'a second step is to work through the 'activities' associated with the categories in order to fill out the attributions that are made to each of the categories' (Baker 1997, p. 142). Emmison and Smith (2000) and Lepper (2000) extend the use of MCA from the more familiar spoken text to visual data.

To this end in the present study, a form of VA generated from some of the principles of the grammar of visual design, such as the function of vectors-similar to verbs in spoken data, as outlined by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996, 1998)-has helped to locate membership categories and category-bound activities. This form of analysis has been focused on the way the social interaction is built up inside the teachers' visual and spoken texts. CDA has enabled the analyst to re-examine the data from the 'top-down' perspective (Miller & Silverman 1995, p. 726), in that this analytical frame assumes that the local circumstances in which the story is produced (the membership categories and activities talked into being) can be tested against the ideological assumptions operating in the wider world context in which the teachers' stories are heard.

These methods have worked with a great degree of mutuality. MCA has provided a useful starting point in the process of fulfilling the study aim of uncovering and interrogating the ideologies and discourses that constitute teachers' taken-for-granted professional practices. More specifically, the identification of the teachers' membership in various categories and category-bound activities within the visual and spoken data has, as proposed by Baker (2000), 'lock[ed] discourses into place, [so that they] are therefore ready for opening to critical examination' (p. 99). Baker argues further that critical textual examination means recognising 'the ideological order that the ... text pre-supposes' (p. 106).


For the first cohort of final year pre-service teachers, the emerging directions of this research study are as follows:

Viability of visual method for documenting professional practice

Initial research findings indicate that combined visual and written narrative is a viable alternative to spoken and written narrative when reflecting on professional matters. Most of the pre-service teachers have acknowledged that, although visual narrative as a means of reflecting on practice is new to them, it has been a useful and effective tool. They indicated that visual narrative could present ideas that could not be conveyed economically in words:
to have put that in words could take you maybe a thousand words to try and explain exactly how I'm feeling. (Daniella)
According to many of this cohort, visual narrative was able to give greater impact to their written narrative. The use and choice of colour was particularly acknowledged in this regard:
The reason why I only had the main action coloured was so the reader would see that before they saw anything else and then they ... could look at the rest of the picture and appreciate it. (Lucas)
Some considered that through visual narrative, images could be presented without the need for words, for example by using light and dark to establish contrast pairs, as in the following example:
When I was creating my book ... as we have the masks falling off the trolls [her metaphor for the students] but in the background we have the sun coming out and that was something I did as a bit of a funny line but I think it was that was the way I felt ... that it would if I pull the students over that line where they didn't have to react against the [teacher's] negative attitude ... that there would be a new kind of light in the classroom. (Emily)

Preference for visual metaphorical representation of professional experiences

All of the (pre-service) interviewees, without suggestion from the researcher, opted to represent their pre-service professional experiences throughout the narrative through some form of consistent visual metaphor. This finding is consistent with earlier work with written narratives by Elbaz (1983) and others, who have found also that image was an important element used to structure teachers' knowledge. The teachers' metaphors have been identified using the conceptual method of Forceville (1996), who argues that three necessary conditions for the identification and interpretation of anything that purports to be a metaphor are the answerability of the following questions: In all cases it has been taken as a given that the author of the picture book has understood that the primary subject is the pre-service teacher. It is accepted then that the primary subject is explored through the secondary subject or the metaphor. The secondary subject is manifested in the use of a consistent protagonist, for example a fairy, a lifeguard or a bird. Consequently, features commonly understood to be attributable to the metaphor become attributable to pre-service teachers and teaching. In many cases the features of the secondary subject reflect the pre-service teacher as positioned within a discourse of enthusiasm for their new profession and caring for their students. The dominant metaphors chosen by the pre-service teachers centred on images of helpers (of students). These helpers displayed aspects of personal growth: for example the pre-service teacher as fairy godmother; the pre-service teacher as rescuer; the pre-service teacher as adventurer/survivor; the pre-service teacher as chrysalis; the pre-service teacher as fledgling bird. In other words the dominant image was of beginning teachers who grew into better and better helpers in the education workplace.

Dominant view of teaching reproduced as a discourse of liberal humanism

In their visual and spoken text most of the 19 pre-service participants reproduced a dominant, hegemonic liberal humanist world-view of beginning teaching. This view was generally specified in practices related to child-centred pedagogy: a view of teaching that most often succeeds with academically able, white middle class students (Walton 1992). An example taken from the first cohort of student teachers illustrates how strong this inclination is in some of the visual texts produced. A close analysis of Toria's picture book, using the methods outlined above, supports the persistent effort that the narrator/pre-service teacher makes to present her side of the story: that good teaching is child-centred (see Johnson 2001). The principles of MCA are called upon to locate how the moral categories of the 'good' pre-service teacher and the 'bad' mentor are built up visually throughout the narrative. A focus on the actions or category-bound activities of the characters in the story demonstrates how the author/pre-service teacher draws herself as a good, student-centred caring teacher, while she draws the mentor a s a harsh disciplinarian.

Bleakley (2000, p. 11) found that 'subjectivities supposedly revealed by personal-confessional modes of writing may be constructed by the genre ... '. It is possible also that the participants' knowledge of the traditional linear fictional picture book (for example, Golden Books) has contributed to their documentation of experience in terms of a discourse of liberal humanism that endorses a child-centred pedagogy. Traditionally this genre is marked by a plot that enables characters to change and grow in a morally sanctioned manner, in a narrative that concludes with a happy ending.

Inadequacy of prompts alone in a single interview context

A close examination of the corpus has revealed that simply supplying pre-service teachers, in a single interview episode, with appropriate questions or prompts-such as those based on the critical pedagogy work of Smyth (1992, 1995)-is no guarantee that they will question fully their assumptions about the world of teaching as represented in the narrative. Only one of the 19 (pre-service) participants began to challenge his assumptions about teaching during the interview and, although he went further than his peers did in this regard, he still did not achieve a resistant or oppositional reading. Lucas, this one exception from the pre-service teacher cohort, used his visual narrative to grapple with the theory-practice divide in teacher education, and in his interview he was able to explain also his use of visual language to convey his intended meaning (Johnson 2002). When prompted by the interviewer, Lucas began to question the assumption that his teaching narrative would have a happy ending in his 'real' world context: that he would always be able to combine theory and practice when planning and teaching in a school as an employed teacher. However, even when he was supplied with appropriate questions or prompts, his interview talk did not venture beyond an alternative reading where theoretically he challenges the value of practice without a theory nexus, but accepts the 'real world' constraints that theoretical knowledge will not always be called upon in his long-term professional work.


The second (and final) year of the study is now nearing an end. Concerning the second cohort (the experienced teachers), while the findings are still preliminary, the following three differences from the first cohort are emerging. For brevity, only three teachers' cases are used to demonstrate key points.

Case 1: Differentiated metaphors chosen by experienced teachers

The analyses of the picture books and interview transcripts collected to date reveal that some of the second cohort, like their pre-service colleagues, told the story of their teaching and students' learning through metaphor. However, the choice of metaphor was significantly different for the experienced group, because it looked much more in depth at how to manage teaching and learning effectively in a specific school context. For example, Alice chose the metaphor of the looking glass to convey her critical self-examination, while Pedro, who wanted to illustrate the way in which he chose to sit observantly outside the system, used a maverick metaphor. In the following extract of interview talk, Desley explains her view on student learning/knowledge acquisition via a metaphor constituted through references to an Australian icon, 'old rotary hoist', and the even older prop-style clothesline.
Basically what I've now attempted to do [in my picture book] is look at how I teach and I've titled it 'teaching learning prac process' ... and it's basically how I how I attack the unit of work when I'm going to actually introduce it ... so it's just a general ... overview of where they're going ... because I very much believe that without a definite frame of reference students struggle to learn ... so my analogy is that if you think of a student as the old rotary hoist ... the student is the pole ... the being is the pole ... from the time that they are born I suppose that they start to grow-each little experience that they have builds a little frame around them and so therefore when they have another one they can peg a sock, for example, on their first little frame of knowledge.
In this next extract, Desley differentiates between student knowledge gained within a context (the preferred rotary hoist version) and the decontextualised, prop-supported clothesline version that is not attractive to her.
... and kids that don't have that frame of reference - I think of my old grandma's clothesline where she had a prop at one end-you know a prop at the other end-and the being is the first prop but without any frames of reference. All they've got as they hang and move through life to their final prop are these isolated things ... so like a whole line of socks but none actually connected because they haven't gone around in any sort of frame.

Case 2: A non-dominant view of teaching represented

Earlier, the point was made that the research design encouraged the pre-service teachers and the teachers to move from a focus on a unified truthful interpretation of their practice, to a position where they question and challenge the status quo. Most of the pre-service teachers did not do this. The second cohort-the experienced teachers-are proving to be more successful in interrogating their and/or others' taken-for-granted assumptions about how best to be a teacher. For example, Alice used her stage 2 prompts during the interview in the following manner:
Well, I'd probably have to say, after having looked at that [the interview protocol], I think what would be silenced in that picture book would be students from other cultural backgrounds that I come into contact with at school.
In their visual narratives and in their interviews, the experienced teachers are demonstrating an increased ability to focus on doing teaching differently. In the first minutes of her interview Desley explains that 'mainly the purpose of the writing, ah, doing the [picture] book the way I did was to look at my own teaching practice from a critical point of view'. Looking specifically within her school context, she challenges the notion that she can live up to parents' and her school's expectations and deliver, unproblematically, middle-class notions of post-compulsory education options to students who are not academically able. Therefore, although she retains a student-centred view of teaching, she challenges the assumption that 'one size fits all'. This view is promoted in her visual text also, through the visual language she employs (see Figure 1).

Case 3: Non-linearity of the picture book genre

Again, the use of the picture book narrative followed by an interview/account is proving to be a viable alternative to spoken and written narrative when reflecting on professional matters. However, many of the experienced teachers produced a non-linear picture book. Unlike the linear style employed by the first cohort, Desley's visual narrative is presented in a non-linear collage style: a series of one-page accounts that relate to each other thematically but do not constitute a linearly sequential narrative. Probably because of this non-linearity, her visual narrative, as distinct from those of the first cohort, was not personal growth oriented towards a conventional happy ending, even within the one-page accounts.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Page 7 of Desley's picture book


This paper has reported on a study that seeks to encourage pre-service teachers and experienced colleagues to reflect, using the theoretical resources available from post-structural theory. Considering the fact that a post-structuralist approach is not the intellectual thrust of pre-service teachers' education programs locally or internationally, the empirical (non)outcome of the first stage of this study is not surprising. In essence, in the present cultu ral climate of initial teacher education, the post-structural approach to teacher reflection could be seen as counterproductive to most current understandings of initial teacher education. Many would argue still that most beginning teachers are struggling to survive and grow into (Fuller 1969) the status quo, let alone challenge it! The conclusions drawn from the analysis of data generated by the experienced teacher group in this study are more hopeful in this regard. They suggest that a post-structural approach to teacher reflection is an easier move to make with the benefit of the insight/hindsight that comes from employment experience in the field (which is not to say that beginning teachers, given the appropriate mentoring/encouragement over a longer period of time, are not capable also of challenging the status quo even during pre-service teacher education).

The findings so far also emphasise the need to situate teacher reflection firmly in a particular school context. It seems that a personal investment in one's setting can provide a strong foundation for inquiring into the political nature of workplace activity. At some stage a political investigation of one's teaching must relinquish a focus on personal concerns and look seriously at (mis)matches between personal and institutional ideological positioning. Intrinsic to this transition from the personal to the political is the need to situate the process of reflection in a robust theory, such as post-structuralism, with its move away from linear development (from novice to expert) as best practice. It might well be that collaborative research-reflection over a prolonged period between beginning teachers, their teacher mentors in the school setting, and university staff will be more effective in perpetuating a transition from a focus on the personal to a concern with the political implications of sustaining taken-for granted professional practices.


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Author details: Dr Greer Johnson
Centre for Language and Literacy Education Research
Faculty of Education, Griffith University, NATHAN Qld 4111
Email: G.Johnson@gu.edu.au

Elizabeth Stevens
Centre for Language and Literacy Education Research
Faculty of Education, Griffith University, NATHAN Qld 4111

Please cite as: Johnson, G. C. & Stevens, E. (2002). Moving from the personal to the political in teachers' reflective practice. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(1), 7-22. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/johnson-g.html

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Created 12 Sep 2004. Last correction: 31 Dec 2004.
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