June 12th, 2013

Reflections on Teaching: Learning from Our Stories


Here’s a great story. A graduate student is attending a lecture being given by one of her intellectual heroes, the Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire. She takes notes furiously, trying to capture as many of his words as possible. Seeing that she is keenly interested in what Freire had to say, his translator asks if she would like to meet him. Of course! She is introduced and he begins by inquiring about her work. Then he graciously agrees to respond to a set of questions she and her colleagues hoped they would get the chance to ask him. She is impressed beyond belief, but time prevents her from asking one last, difficult question. They meet accidently once more at the event and he wonders if she asked all her questions? No, there is one more. “Given your work, we want to know ‘where is the hope’?” Without hesitating he moves toward her, takes her face in his hands, looks into her eyes, and replies, “You tell them, ‘you are the hope, because theory needs to be reinvented, not replicated … it is a guide. We make history as we move through it and that is the hope.”

It’s a quote Linda Shadiow never forgot and a story she continues to tell. It’s also part of a collection of stories she shares in her new book, What Our Stories Teach Us: A Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty. The book may sound like a short story collection, but it’s not. Shadiow believes that the stories we tell as teachers—stories about our experiences as students and accounts from our lives teaching students—can be used to deepen understandings of ourselves as teachers. She uses her stories and those of others to illustrate how these stories function as key events in the life of a teacher.

Most faculty have heard the admonitions that teachers should do more critical reflection, but many are confused as what that means and how they go about doing it. As one said to me. “I don’t understand. I should think more about my teaching? I do that, but I don’t seem to come up with any splendid new insights.”

Understanding ourselves as teachers—what beliefs inform the decisions we make, what values determine how we relate to students, and what assumptions ground the collection of policies and practices we use—isn’t easy. We are so vested in our instructional identities that it’s difficult to step back and see our teaching objectively. Shadiow proposes that stories can be a way into more realistic perspectives and deeper insights. She has theory and research to back up this belief (they are referenced in the book), but it’s the stories themselves that make the case most convincingly.

She opens up her stories to analysis and invites readers to do the same with theirs. The process she lays out starts with identifying your teaching and learning stories—the ones you regularly tell others. Then she shows how those stories can be explored for patterns and how the assumptions embedded in them can be located and analyzed. As you read the book, you find yourself looking at your stories from different vantage points and those varying perspectives change how the story looks and what it reveals. By the end, you are seeing how your teaching has evolved, how it reflects what you believe, and where your instructional practice might be headed. It’s a way of doing critical reflection that makes it easy to understand what it is and why it’s a valuable endeavor.

The book is beautifully written—which makes it a joy to read. It’s warm and engaging with insightful quotations and intriguing metaphors sprinkled throughout. If you’re looking for a good professional reading experience this summer, this is the book I’d recommend. You don’t often find pedagogical reading that effectively offers both information and inspiration. I first saw this book as a manuscript, but now I’ve read it as a book, and used the process to explore a set of my favorite stories. I’m still telling the same stories, but I am understanding them, and my teaching self, in exciting new ways.

Reference: Shadiow, L. K. What Our Stories Teaching Us: A Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

  • Hari Sharan Pokhara

    A very good Story for the teachers to read, realize and improve own teaching ability!

  • howard doughty

    Well, you've convinced me to get the book!

    I am all for listening to vignettes, anecdotes and fully fledged mini-epics. There is often a wealth of insight to be gained from a brief encounter or a mere aphorism.

    I also all for "telling stories" and to listening keenly when someone re-tells "our" stories … the inevitable distortions in content and interpretation present an extraordinarily auspicious moment for self-awareness.

    I am also cautious. At their worst, anecdotal information resembles a Greeting Card: there's lots less there than meets the eye. At their best, they are snapshots, one-offs, amusing and engaging to be sure, but going nowhere other than deeper into the uncertainly we have all felt.

    Eventually, if we are to be serious about any of this, we need to move a step up from swapping stories, exchanging anecdotes, repeating pithy or even hilarious "teachable moments." We need to discern a patter that connects stories and develop a genuine theory that helps to describe, explain and ultimately justify an overall approach to education.

    Theory-building is, of course, anathema to many teachers who have been accustomed to reading poor or merely technical or instrumental theory. (And, of course, telling people to speak clearly and loudly enough for the person at the back to hear you without spitting on the person at the front isn't "theory"!)

    Our awful educational processes often lead practitioners and others to say one of the dumbest things in our culture: namely, "it's alright in theory, but it wouldn't work in practice."

    Nuts! If it doesn't work in practice, it was lousy theory, and if it works in practice, there's a good theory behind it.

    Here's my point. Educational theory isn't about (or not exclusively about) what goes on in the classroom. That's "microtheory." It isn't even mainly about what happens in the institution. That's "mesotheory." It's about how the classroom and the institution connect to the larger society/civilization. That's macrotheory, and it's the basis of both the most important and the most neglected topics of educational conversation.

    A while ago, I attended a faculty workshop on "language across the curriculum." People talked about relating to students and techniques for motivating students. Then I raised issues of college funding and policy priorities. A colleague hissed in disgust, asking why I had to bring "politics" into it. Well, I didn't! Politics was there from the beginning. It's the pachyderm in the palace.

    Any effort to help teachers improve their teaching that ignores the political economy in which education resides is individualizing and therefore trivializing the issues.

    When our stories illustrate larger questions of power and interest, they will be truly helpful. Anything less is apt to be mere amusement … charming, perhaps, but ultimately beside the point.

    Connecting the dots, reflecting on such things as the commodification and commercialization of curriculum, the manifold hidden agendas and implicit interests that distort and demean authentic education is tough. Some people may have to learn a whole new vocabulary, sometimes from apparently unsavory sources. Occasionally "happy faces" must be abandoned and we must realize that we are not going to "have a nice day." We may have to join Neitzsche and "philosophize with a hammer. We may have to create "bad scenes" and learn not to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive when circumstances demand dissent.

    Still, it's worth it to emancipate ourselves from the mystification that envelopes us. St. Paul said "the truth shall make you free." What he didn't add was that we cannot expect it to be given to us; we have to make it up ourselves.

    A place to start: "Critical Pedagogy" … one of Ivan Illich's more well-known "disciples" is Henry A. Giroux. He teaches down the road from me in Hamilton, Ontario where he Chairs the Faculty of English & Cultural Studies. Henry is prolific (55 books, tons of articles and a monthly column in the alternative website "Truthout". In November, he'll publish "Higher Education After Neoliberalism" (Toronto: Between the Lines Press).

    I'll read yours. You read mine. It's only fair.

    • Jim Buchan

      Excellent! Well said

    • Hmm… there does seem to be an impressive gap between fields like the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning and Critical Pedagogy, doesn't there. I think bringing the two into conversation with one another is absolutely imperative, but I also think that it's a conversation that will often be malfunctional, in the sense that the two fields are speaking to two different purposes, as you suggest when you talk about the difference between micro/meso and macro perspectives. Which perhaps is a round-about way of saying that I really agree with you when you call for a critical reading practice that is able to locate the role that structural and often inhumane systems function in educational institutions, and therefore in our stories-about-teaching, as well as our implication in such systems. But that "anything less" than that is "apt to be mere amusement" just cannot be true. Or, at least I hope it can't! In one of her contributions to the field of Critical Pedagogy, called Novel Education, Deborah Britzman talks about how her belief that "everything is political" "crowded out" everything else that is involved in teaching & learning, especially the people. She seems to be saying, "yes, everything IS political," and yet, inversely, the political isn't everything. Reflecting on teaching stories & anecdotes might help us remember that people are in the room with us, people whose lives are impacted by the political, and who themselves impact social & political life. Seeing them only as political subjects or objects, or as parts of larger systems, however, erases the relational aspect of teaching from the teaching & learning that teachers and students are looking for in and outside of classrooms.

      And I should add, thank you for the thoughtful and provocative comment. I love the comments on Maryellen's blog (not to mention the blog itself, of course!). It's great to see educators and academics provoking and poking one another. Thanks for the poke!

  • antonemgoyak

    I love the quote of Freire: "you are the hope, because theory needs to be reinvented, not replicated … it is a guide. We make history as we move through it and that is the hope." What struck me about this reply to the student is that it also reminds me how that though the end game of education might stay consistent over the ages, the methods and processes do need to be reinvented over time so that education stays relevant and energizing to our customers – the students.

    A look back at the Industrial Revolution 150 years back is a case in point. Much of what we do today in practice was born out of an age with a totally different need than we have today: students in rows, learning in solo, being assessed in isolation, with one-way communication being the modus operandi. Unchallenged assumptions lead to the same ruts that have been trodden by those before us.

    Our stories are key in helping us as educators flesh out the theory that we often throw around so quickly. Go back to a simpler day and story-telling was the primary way of transferring beliefs and culture from one generation to the next. Thanks for the "good read" recommendation. Looks like a book that is both helpful and entertaining.

  • Indeed, the book has gone on my ever-growing list. Thank you for this glowing recommendation.

    In response to Howard's article comment, I like much of what you say here. You are right to emphasize the macro-level. However, I think that you are wrong to minimize (if that's what you are doing, though I may be reading you incorrectly) the meso- and especially micro-levels.

    If we want until we can fix the macro levels to work on better teaching in the micro-levels and better institutional structures at the meso-levels, which are indeed broken, then we will wait a long time to get around to teaching better. Actually, I think that it may be worse than that. Perhaps the macro levels were allowed to break because the micro levels were not effective enough when they needed to be. To be a bit more specific, how many of those working to viciously de-fund education had, themselves, powerful and transformative learning experiences in college?

    At any rate, teaching the best that one can in one’s context is itself an act of political resistance. Not that we indoctrinate students to a certain politics but that we help them, a handful at a time, become reflective, critical, thoughtful, informed, caring, etc.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • I really enjoyed this book review, thank you. Like Howard, I'm keen to read the book and immediately ordered in online. I've also sent an email to our librarian to ask for it to be added to our library! The Freire story and quote is inspirational – his work has been the ground on which much of my teaching 'thinking' and practice has grown from. I've also really appreciated the challenges and invitations to critical thinking in the comments and now have two new great blogs to follow! Thanks Paul and Anton.

  • Jean Hill Gibson

    Linda Shadiow, my first supervisor at NAU, taught me more about the grammar and punctuation than any class I could have taken. I was her 'secretary' and she became a friend. I will have my daughter, a sixth-grade teacher and new Ed Leadership Master's recipient, read her book. I am sure it is awe-inspiring!