This e-bulletin continues our focus on developing ‘effective participators’. This issue we look at Narrative Enquiry – a form of cooperative investigation that can be used with students, staff, parents, governors to encourage active exploration of the issues that affect them

We will look at the key stages of a Narrative Enquiry, and how it has been used in a range of different contexts with one in-depth example from a Northumberland High School showing how it has been used to support and inspire student-led research.

What is Narrative Enquiry?
Narrative Enquiry is a form of cooperative investigation that uses storytelling as a means of reflecting on and processing experience. Story has existed in every known human society. Like metaphor, it seems to be everywhere: sometimes active and obvious, and at other times fragmentary, dormant, and tacit. We encounter it not just in novels and films and conversations, but also as we look around a room and see objects that have history, or wonder about an event or think about what to do next week. If you were to personally count every instance of story that you encounter in the course of a day, the number would not be just one or two but more likely in the dozens, if not greater. Often unconscious, storytelling is one of the fundamental ways in which we make sense of information and experience. In Narrative Enquiry, it is used explicitly as a strategy to help participants explore their experiences and communicate their ideas.

It engages student and adult groups in an enquiry that grows out of their own experience as expressed in their own stories. It therefore helps them to make a personal connection with the issues that are raised and ensures a greater level of ‘buy-in’ for any resulting course of action.

How does it work?

The key stages of a Narrative Enquiry

1 Collect stories
Decide area of exploration: What issue or theme do you want to explore as a group?
Thinking time: Group members have a think about their own experiences relating to this issue or theme. They are given time to come up with one anecdote or story from their own experience. This should recount a specific ‘event’ (Who? When? Where? What?) rather than give an opinion or judgement.
Storytelling: Each group member tells their story and gives it a title.
Collective tagging: After each story, group members suggest three to five ‘tags’ or key words that sum up what they perceive the story to be all about. Each tag is written on a separate post-it.

2 Explore and organise
Collective sorting and classifying: Group members work together to sort the tags in anyway that makes sense to them. In this way, key themes emerge and are identified.
Exploring meaning: One or more of the stories can also be chosen by the facilitator, or by the group as a whole, for deeper exploration. For example activities, which act as a stimulus for further expression of meaning and meaning making, see the case study below.
Final words: Group members share their final reflections – this might be on how their understanding of the key issue or theme has developed, on what they have learned, or perhaps on the process itself.

3 Take action
The key themes that have emerged are prioritised for action; specific ideas for action are generated; these are analysed for their likely impact and ease of implementation; a consensus reached regarding first steps; and a plan of action drawn up.

A case study: Using Narrative Enquiry to develop student participation and leadership

The stages above are exemplified in the following example where Narrative Enquiry was used as part of an enquiry-based learning to learn programme for students in Years 9 and 10. It enabled the students to identify the key aspects of learning and school life that they would like to explore further and take action to develop and improve.

Project outline

A visual overview of the project can be downloaded here. What follows is a more detailed project outline and explanation.

1 Collecting stories
1.1 Reducing the risk: It’s important to be aware of the social dynamics of storytelling – in any ordinary social context the storytellers are those with the most power. The less influential initiate fewer stories, unwilling to risk the loss of face that seeking and failing to capture the interest of the group might cause. They tend to echo stories already told, responding to a story with a story that reinforces the point being made – and therefore status of the teller.

It is important to establish from the outset, therefore, the value of each person’s experience and the benefits of communicating it. Invite students to form small groups or Story Circles – in a class of 30, this will mean five or six groups. Friendship groups are best initially unless you are working with a class with an already well developed culture of trust and cooperation. In a group explicitly formed for the purpose, storytelling authority is distributed more broadly – each member is given permission, and empowered to make a contribution.

As a warm-up activity, each student group or Story Circle was challenged to create and then tell a story using a large set of quirky, amusing pictures as a stimulus. Intuitively we all know what a story is, but it is worthwhile asking the students at this stage to decide what the crucial ingredients of a story should be – and to draw up their own guidelines. Some of their ideas are recorded here.

To generate the initial set of stories about students’ learning experiences, the following scenario and probing questions were used:

A young person your age wants to know whether your school is a good place to learn – they are trying to choose between two schools. Tell them two true stories from the extremes of your own experience.

1) What story would you tell to persuade them that your school is a good place to learn?
2) What story would you tell to persuade them that your school is not a good place to learn?

1.2 Thinking time: Group members are given time to think about and select two stories from their own experience. These can be prepared orally, written out or recorded in note form. You could model the kind of contribution you are looking for by telling a story of your own from your own experience – one that is highly meaningful and emotive for you. This has the additional advantage of demonstrating the kind of ‘higher risk’ story that will be of more value to the group than a safe, neutral story that demonstrates no strong emotions or tensions.

1.3 Storytelling: Taking the positive stories first, and then the negative, each group member tells their story and gives it a title. The convention needs to be established that particular students or teachers should not be named. Here is one example written by a Year 10 student. The title he gave to his story was: ‘Unexpected’. He offered it as a positive experience.

‘All the others were watching the pantomime and I was stuck in the isolation room with a teacher. It wasn’t even my fault this time but there was no way anyone was going to try and see it my way. The teacher asked me to design and put up a display. There should be more lessons where you get choice like that… it was actually fun! She told me she’d got into trouble at school for a while. I told her it was hard to change when everyone expected you to be a certain way. And she understood.’

2 Organising the stories: uncovering key themes
2.1 Collective tagging: After each story is told, group members suggest three ‘tags’ or key words that sum up what the story is all about – the key ideas or themes. These can be written on cards or post-its. After all the stories have been heard, these tags – from both positive and negative stories – are then grouped and sorted by the students to uncover common themes that are of interest or concern to the whole group. The tags given to the story above, for example, were: ‘trust’, ‘expectations’ and ‘active learning’.

As well as key ideas, stories can also be tagged with other forms of ‘metadata’ such as character types, emotions, or locations providing other possible ways of grouping and sorting the stories.

Each group is then given the chance to share the themes that they have uncovered with the whole class. In this way, a list of themes and concerns of importance to the whole class is identified and the outline of a tailor-made ‘Learning to Learn’ programme – authored by the students themselves – is established.

The themes to do with learning uncovered by the students’ storytelling were as follows:

  • Motivation and learning
  • Confidence and self-concept
  • Learning preferences: the need for choice
  • Collaborative learning vs. teacher talk…talk…talk
  • Challenge
  • Learning to think
  • Exam stress
  • Keeping a positive attitude
  • Teacher/student relations

Depending upon the amount of time you have to devote to the programme, the role of the teachers is now to support the class as they explore some or all of the different issues to do with learning that they have identified as important. The whole class collectively decides their order of priority using a simple voting system.

3 Exploring the stories: finding meaning
Once the first issue for collaborative enquiry has been chosen, one relevant story is chosen for deeper exploration. The whole class could focus on the same story, or different groups could each select a story of their own choosing. The story does, however, need to be rich enough to act as a stimulus for further expression of meaning and meaning making. (Again see the students’ own guidelines). Activities from the menu below can then be selected and used either separately on in combination.

3.1 ‘Wandering around the story’ – different readings/different perspectives
Volunteers – previously listeners – take turns to read the chosen story in their own style and intonation. Perhaps they experiment with different voices or dramatic styles. As they do so the original story begins to take on more of a separate life of its own. The storyteller hears his/her story in a new way – which is both validating (‘Did I really write that?’) and helps them to develop a wider perspective. In a sense, when the story is distanced in this way, it can be seen not only as part of ‘me’, not only as my product to fret over whether it is ‘good enough’, but can be enjoyed more for its own sake.

The different readings open up the story more fully. By ‘wandering around’ the story and viewing it through different perspective windows, it, like a prism, appears differently. Each different view helps both the storyteller and the audience to find new meaning and develop and share new insights, as illustrated in the following contribution to a ‘Last Words’ session (see 3.5 below).

‘When I read my story I was ashamed… I felt really small, still! But someone else in the group read it like… like all triumphant… like [a mistake] was a triumph, and I guess I did learn something. I shouldn’t worry so much if you learn more from the bad stuff.’

3.2 ‘Wandering inside the story’
Group members bring the story alive through the use of drama conventions.

They can re-live the story, becoming each or any of the characters to which they are attracted, speaking in the present active tense and in the first person, thus personifying and giving them voice. Tableux or ‘frozen images’, thought tracking, captioning, gifting or hot seating would all be appropriate conventions to use. Download details here. The use of drama can help students to see a situation from different perspectives and pose new questions, as in the following example which relates to the story written by the Year 10 student (recorded in 1.3) above.

‘When that group made a frozen image of the scene from the story I was thinking that [the student character] would be feeling dead angry and aggressive so I gave him really angry words to say and you hot seated me and the argument just got worse and worse. But other people had him feel angry but respond quite calmly and that worked out better… there was a better outcome. I don’t get how anyone can feel so bad and act so differently!’

3.3 Respond to a story with a story
Group members respond to the story with a story of their own or with another expressive mode such as a poem or a picture. This is a way in which the expression of meaning can be significantly deepened.

A reply is ‘my reaction to your story’: an expressive way of giving shape to the feelings and ideas you had while listening to the story.

An echo or sharing response is ‘your theme in my story’: here you tell your own stories on the same theme.

A reflection is ‘my story about your story’: you take a step back and talk about the story; you express the thoughts that it has triggered in your mind.

3.4 Transpose the story into a new form
Another option is to challenge older students to move away from a specific experience and account towards the archetypal – to transpose the story into the form of a myth or fairy tale. This helps them to focus directly on the big themes or ideas that they have uncovered and would like to communicate. To do this they need first to identify three or four archetypes from all the characters that have surfaced from the group storytelling. Examples might include the hero, the villain, the wise one, the king, the victim, or the joker. This has the effect of generalising the story. Each archetype will embody both positive and less positive attributes, enabling us to safely recognise something of ourselves in each one. Students can also experiment with the rich symbolism of myths or fairy tales in order to get their message across – bridges, mountains, caves, keys, three wishes, poison, disguise, a letter, monsters, labyrinths and so on. Students can be challenged to create a new story in which a particular problem or situation they have identified is played out and perhaps resolved or handled more skilfully.

3.5 Last words
Group members share their final reflections – this might be on how their understanding of the key issue or theme has developed, on what they have learned, or perhaps on the process itself.

4 Take action: stories as stimuli for research
After using the storytelling and drama activities to explore a particular theme, the student groups were then encouraged to devise and run a piece of small-scale research to explore their ideas further or to test a developing hypothesis. This builds upon the idea of ‘Independent Enquiries’ found in the Thinking Through School project described in the last issue, but rather than students conducting ready-made experiments and investigations, the older students in this programme developed mini research projects of their own. Some of the hypotheses that students set out to test included:

  • ‘Choice of activity and choice of homework increases motivation.’
  • ‘Most students remember more from active learning than from listening.’
  • ‘If you break your revision into time chunks its easier to remember things.’
  • ‘Most students learn more when they get the chance to work with others.’
  • ‘Behaviour is worst in lessons where a teacher talks for longer than the students do.’
  • ‘You can change your attitude by changing the words you use.’
  • ‘The teachers who make you think the hardest are the teachers who talk least.’
  • ‘Classes where students claim they are making the most progress are run by teachers who don’t give marks just comments.’

Students designed their own research tools, supported with plenty of different examples and, as with the Thinking Through School programme, they keep an ongoing record of their findings, which they reported back to their classmates and teachers as the programme progressed. Their teachers also reported back on what they, in turn, were learning – and doing – as a result.

Currently, students are also preparing powerful ‘feedback stories’ – using their own guidelines – to share with school leaders. These are taking a variety of forms including poetry, prose, sketches, cartoon strips, story graphs and word animations. They include stories about the best and the worst of experiences and stories about what helps and hinders learning in their school. Some are ‘heaven’ scenarios where students offer a clear vision for their school, others are ‘hell’ scenarios with clear warnings implied about the consequences of inaction for certain individuals or groups, or for the school as a whole. Some are set in an everyday context, while others are in mythic form. Student feedback of this kind may well prove to be a particularly powerful agent of change. As one Year 9 student commented:

‘It’s great that we can say what we feel and not get into trouble but quite often nothing changes. A story might really get under their skin… it’s harder to forget than a list of bullet points.’

Although ‘Learning to Learn’ lies at the heart of this particular project, the approach can easily be adapted. In one school I am using narrative enquiry to help staff develop students’ emotional literacy, in another, the approach is being integrated within the PSHE programme. It can, of course, be used to explore key issues within any curriculum area. Another Northumberland school that is about to embark on substantial curriculum development is planning to use the approach with staff to ensure staff ownership of the process of change.

Its particular strength lies in the way it engages adult and student groups in an enquiry that grows out of their own experience as expressed in their own stories. It helps them to make a personal connection with a particular issue or area of study. People are grabbed by stories and as their stories are created, recounted, explored, transformed and developed, groups are motivated to adopt different perspectives thereby gaining a fuller understanding not only of a particular topic, issue or problem, but also of themselves both individually and as a learning community. For some individuals, there is much ‘unlearning’ as assumptions and preconceptions about themselves, their teachers, about school and learning are revealed and challenged.

Examples of other ‘Narrative Enquiries’

  • *Warkworth First School – Where do we go next as a school?
  • *Stannington First School – How do create excellent classroom experiences?
  • Parkwood Primary School, Scunthorpe – Where are we now and how did we get here?
  • Marine Park first School, Whitley Bay – How do we promote better learning?
  • Coquet First Schools Learning Network – How do we promote emotional intelligence?
  • *Blyth Partnership Headteachers – How do we ensure a good school experience?
  • The Ashington Trust Schools – How do we promote collaboration and curriculum reform?
  • *Ponteland High School – How do we ensure effective learning?
  • *Duchess High School – How do we create excellent classroom experiences?
  • Northumberland MFL HS Coordinators – How do we promote better learning?

*denotes student-led enquiries, or staff/student/parent collaborations.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.