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Narrative Inquiry

By asking questions about how your research will change practice you might consider ways that you can story your experiences to help others shift their own practices.

In the previous blog I drew on my own experiences of action research but in writing this blog I am grateful to Lee Schaefer. It is Lee’s lived experiences and storied knowledge of narrative inquiry that have allow me to reflect on narrative inquiry in this piece.

I am also grateful to Andy Vasily and Wyatt Franz who have engaged with this blog series in a way that brings it to life for me and makes real the approaches I’m writing about. I have tried to bring their discussions from the previous blog forwards into my thinking in this blog but encourage everyone to visit the action research blog (Published March 9th 2018) and consider their insights first hand. 

So what is narrative inquiry? And what isn’t narrative inquiry?

Narrative inquiry isn’t narrative research. While both allow the practitioner researcher to think about stories, narrative inquiry goes further and helps us to think with stories. In short:

People shape their daily lives by stories of who they are and others are and as they interpret their past in terms of these stories. Story, in the current idiom, is the portal through which a person enters the world by which their experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful. Narrative inquiry, a study of experience as story, then, is first and foremost a way of thinking about experience. (Connelly & Clandidnin, 2006, p. 375)

Narrative inquiry allows us to study both the narratives themselves and consider how the same stories allow us to better understand our experience as they are lived. That said, narrative inquiry cannot be boiled down just to stories. The experience cannot be stripped out and a fireside story told. The experience itself knocks up against the experiences of the listener/reader, the social environment and the place. The story offers us a window into how an individual understands their own experiences, how we understand those experiences as listeners and readers and, in turn, how these experiences make up people’s lives.

In talking to Lee, and re-reading his chapter in our book, I am drawn to the value and ability (for want of a better word) that he saw in narrative inquiry to pay attention to what research participants were saying, to value this in its own right (and not ‘paint over it’ with theory’) and provide an authentic representation of participants’ voices. He reflects on how teachers’ knowledge mattered and how they were considered to be knowledge holders. In his words, “narrative inquiry represents a particular view of the world that values and upholds the knowledge that participants bring to the research endeavour.” 

It’s important to note that narrative inquiry didn’t emerge out of nothing. Its philosophical underpinnings speak of a commitment to experience. It holds that what you see (and hear, feel, think, love, taste, despise, fear, etc.) is what you get. That is all we ultimately have in which to ground our understanding. And that is all we need. Narrative inquirers argue that knowledge and understanding reside in the eye of the beholder - the teacher, the professional - rather than the eye of the expert or authority. Narrative inquiry draws on John Dewey’s understanding of experience as both continuous (i.e. shaped by time and written over the top of past experience to shape future experience) and interactive (i.e. experience intermingles with the social cultural environments and places in which we live). Narrative inquirers believe that while our individual experiences are continuous, there are also constantly interacting with the places, people, and social environments within which we live.

To explain this, narrative inquirers have develop what they call the ‘three dimensional narrative inquiry space’. These are three commonplaces where narrative inquirers engage with stories and ask questions which explore personal feels and hopes: (1) the common place of temporality (i.e. experience always has a past, present and future), (2) the common place of sociality (i.e. while our own experiences are continuous, they are constantly interacting with the social conditions to which we belong) and, (3) the common place of place (quite literally the place in which the experience happens impacts on that experience).

Narrative inquiry holds that our experience is something that we can interact with, i.e. in thinking about our past experiences we can see how they mesh present experiences and how they might shape future experiences (temporality). If, as Lee recalled, you have felt marginalised as a physical education teacher this marginalisation means less if you don’t appreciate the position of physical education as a subject that is seen as ‘less than’. Lee’s experience of feeling marginalised are better comprehend if you understand who he was and who he was becoming as a teacher (Sociality). Finally, narrative inquiry ask the listener/reader to understand the places that become storied. If part of Lee’s story of marginalisation is set in a gymnasium, then it is important to understand how that space may have shaped the experience of marginalisation (place).

In his reflections on the last blog, Andy told us about the experiences of a music teacher in his school. If we reconsider this story through narrative inquiry (and I am making this up as I go along so this should be treated purely hypothetically) we might see the development of the lesson temporality i.e. past experience of teaching this lesson or this type of lesson informed the development/teaching of this lesson which, in turn will change (did change) the teaching of a similar class in the future. If we view this socially then we need to understand the teacher in both local and larger social contexts. We need to understand the position of the subject in the school, in the community, in the county (both the country in which it is being taught and the context in which the teacher learnt about music and music teaching). If we view the lesson as a place then we need to consider the geography of the room, the equipment, the seating of the kids, the position of their friends in relation to the instrument they want to use, their confidence to read music or improvise. In short, how did this particular space shape the experience?

When using, or choosing to use, narrative inquiry it is important that you find a personal justification for its use. In narrative inquiry terms this often means situating yourself in the study. So Wyatt might position himself as an experimental innovator who takes his time to come to better answers. Andy, in turn, might take into account the temporality, sociality and place of his own experiences (as a physical education teacher, musician, Canadian, former quarterback etc.) as they relate to his colleague’s teaching.

It is important that the narrative inquirer has a practical justification for the study. By asking questions about how your research will change practice you might consider ways that you can story your experiences to help others shift their own practices. Finally, the narrative inquirer might consider a social justification for a study and, in doing so, think about how the study will help us to better understand a particular phenomenon. Is it, for example, something that is emancipatory and focuses on positive social change or is it something else?

Narrative inquiry, with its focus on experience, gives value to the practitioner researcher’s voice. It includes them in the research in meaningful ways and, perhaps, offers new ways to bring about different and deep understanding of teaching and learning going forwards. The change, as I found in ‘doing’ narrative inquiry, is seeing our experiences not as stories to think about but as stories to think with.



Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.  

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (2006). Narrative inquiry. In J. L. Green, G. Camilli, P. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods in education research (3rd ed., pp. 477 - 487). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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On Saturday 31 March at 22:36 Wyatt Franz said

Another meaningful post in getting oneself to reflect upon their practice and how does it apply. Narrative inquiry is profound in that we all have stories which can tell us about where we are, and further where we want to go. To talk about my own journey as an educator, I began as an elementary classroom teacher before I evolved into a K-8 PE teacher in the US public school system. I had to figure out how to best teach these students that fit in with the curriculum of the school and the restraints of where I was teaching (small indoor space, limited contact time with students, etc.). After that I moved abroad where I taught in Myanmar to only middle school students, where there was more contact time but there were still other constraints and mostly a sports based focus. Fast forward to now where I currently teach in Saudi Arabia to middle-high school students with an adequate amount of contact time, and due to the system I came into, a more fitness centered PE approach. 

I retell this simply to agree that I often think about my journey to where I am, but also to think about where it is I want to go. While I am certainly satisfied with the path I have taken, and I have no regrets, I also believe I have much more to learn. Furthermore, I also enjoy listening and if possible observing my fellow practitioners because there stories past, present, (and future!) also play a role in my thinking.

The very cool part is we are often not just where we are because of our views but also our circumstances. This is why I realize it is important to be open-minded to change even if in subtle ways. I really couldn't have imagined I would be where I am at right now, but as I said, I am happy. With reading blogs such as this, and communicating with other learners there is much to be done.

Thanks Ash!

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On Monday 02 April at 06:19 Evan W Godsiff said

Thanks Ash - I have only read your last 2 posts, but shall be going back through to learn more. I am intrigued by this idea of Narrative Inquiry and also Action Research.  I am always trying to improve, but haven't been particularly focused about it - just always challenging my perceptions, but sometimes not sticking with something long enough to measure its effectiveness (does that make sense?)

So I imagine, step 1 is to figure out an area of focus for my teaching and really key in on that for a while. Collect data, reflect. I like the plan-act-reflect being more systematic than "trying to improve". My wonder is, when connecting to Narrative Inquiry, is this me figuring out how to take what I have learned and share it with others? Or is it creating a story around what happened, as in another form of reflection? Can Narrative Inquiry be done by me (the pracititioner) or is it another method used by researchers for study?

Thanks again for writing!  And thanks for sharing your story Wyatt - small world, I have a student who just moved from ISG - Jubail, and friends who teach in Dharan!

Ashley Casey
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On Tuesday 03 April at 16:41 Ashley Casey said

Hi Evan, thanks for responding to he blog. Narrative Inquiry is very much for the practitioner and no researcher outside of yourself is needed to be a narrative inquirer. It is sometimes easier to have a little help but this is by no means a prerequisite. There is much more information our there...including, but not exclusively, in our new book. 

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On Wednesday 04 April at 09:24 Andy Vasily said

Thanks for this post Ashley. I was recently in Poland running PD for teachers in the region. I shared your blog with some researchers from Lithuania who had attended my training. In capturing the essence of narrative inquiry, I feel that you are placing great emphasis on the educator, as a person. This idea is often overlooked in the journey of teaching and learning. In particular, what resonated with me from this post is:

Story, in the current idiom, is the portal through which a person enters the world by which their experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful. Narrative inquiry, a study of experience as story, then, is first and foremost a way of thinking about experience. (Connelly & Clandidnin, 2006, p. 375)

We cannot move away from the fact that we are shaped by our experiences and the experiences of those closest to us in our lives, both personally and professionally. In all of my years of work in education, I have come to realize that my own narrative (biases and all) have shaped who I am as an educator. In uncovering my own narrative, I can more easily accept that there are things that I need to change in my own practice. 

Having moved from a full-time teacher of physical education, to a full-time role as a consultant/presenter, to my current role as a pedagogical coordinator, the last few years have been the steepest learning curve of my career. 

I now look at my work through the lens sound pedagogical practice when working with teachers, but accept that I'll never know enough. Everything changes so quickly, especially my own experiences and my own story. What I do understand more than ever, is the need to truly dig into other people's stories in order to better understand their experiences and how these experiences shape their own practice and what they believe is best for their students. 

When I invest this time in others, I feel I put myself in a position to better coach them toward improving their practice. Everyone has a different entry point into these discussions, making it very difficult to use any one particular approach when working with teachers. 

Narrative inquiry to me is about having a natural curiosity into who we are, why we believe what we do, and how our teaching reflects these understandings of ourselves. If we do not start with a natural curiosity of our own tendencies, patterns, stories, and experiences, we cannot understand the these things in other people. 

This requires a sense of vulnerability and acceptance that we are all works in progress. Every moment can be a learning moment, even in the face of great failure. 

A narrative inquiry approach can be scary, but seems so safe at the same time as it absolutely honors each and every person, not only as an educator, their professional self, but also the very personal self that they are and are becoming.

Thanks for this post Ashley. I appreciate your work and am glad that we have met in person in both the US and the Philippines. 

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