Make the journey to your self

20th May 2005 at 01:00
JUST WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE? Methodologies for autobiography and self-study in education. Edited by Claudia Mitchell, Sandra Weber and Kathleen O'Reilly-Scanlon. RoutledgeFalmer pound;23.99

PASSIONATE PRINCIPALSHIP: learning from the life histories of school leaders. Edited by Ciaran Sugrue. RoutledgeFalmer pound;70

There is a growing recognition that reflection on practice is fundamental to better teaching. Action research, classroom observation, diaries and stories are part of all teachers' experiential learning. Self-study has become a key tool for research and for professional development: knowledge of yourself heightens both your self-esteem and your effectiveness as a teacher.

As a research field, self-study knows few limits. Your memories of your grandfather; your fascination with shoes; your childlike drawings of being bullied; your response to pictures in a gallery: all are legitimate topics for a master's degree or a doctorate. All of these, and several more, feature in Just Who Do We Think We Are? as exemplars of valid methodologies in this field.

But is it so? These mainly North American research and conference papers in "autobiographical qualitative research" may well convince you, busy and overworked though you certainly are, that these are valid ways of understanding your motivation and improving your teaching. For these writers, though, "teaching" is an elastic term. Some of them want to transform learning not just in their own classrooms, but globally as well, and the contexts cited (they range from Saudi Arabia to Kwa-Zulu Natal and from Nottingham to Nova Scotia) reflect the scope of that ambition.

Their stories are interesting, though. That of Tony Kelley is a good example. He describes how he used Alistair Macleod's moving novel of the Highland Clearances, No Great Mischief, to put teachers in rural Nova Scotia in touch with their past, and give them "a life-enhancing sense of place, culture and identity... narratives that point towards open spaces, whether in the classroom or in the wider community".

The book's thesis is that anything that makes this possible is valid as a "text" for study: fiction, memory, artefacts or dreams will all serve as pathways to the discovery of your true self, and the truth of your teaching. Some readers, though - certainly those unfamiliar with the lexicon of post-modernism in which much of it is couched - will wonder whether sometimes the search for self-knowledge becomes an end in itself.

The writers here have obvious issues about their identity, whether rooted in gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class; most people do.

So if critical reflection is to be a valid tool of educational research, and not just a form of solipsistic navel-gazing, there has to be a methodology that links it to observable improvements in our teaching and our students' learning. That is addressed in the central section of this collection, where we begin to get a real sense of the impact of these reflective strategies on learners themselves. The difficulty, of course, is to measure such changes, and find how to extend and replicate them: not easy, in research that is essentially subjective.

Passionate Principalship, edited by Ciaran Sugrue, is subjective too. The rather cumbrous title is a reference to Michael Fullan's comment (in The Moral Imperative of School Leadership, 2003) that the art of school leadership lies in the ability to generate passion. The five contributors - teachers of education in Norway, Denmark, Ireland and northern England - argue that this sort of leadership is being stifled by the heavily prescriptive leadership that is everywhere in fashion. The question that isn't being asked enough, they say, is "Leadership for What?", and they look for an answer to this question in the life stories, or as they put it, the "search for identity" of a handful of headteachers recommended to them as capable, respected and highly effective.

Again, the life stories, edited down from semi-structured interviews, are interesting - particularly when they are set as here in an unfamiliar educational context - a Danish Folkeschool, for instance, or an Irish church school with its first lay principal. The appendices describing the various school systems are valuable too, and the thrust of the commentary - that we need to hear less about leadership and much more about leaders - is properly persuasive. Passion, the authors say, has to be harnessed to a commitment to learning and "an ongoing commitment to identity construction".

But it is a highly subjective message. It isn't easy to extrapolate from these short accounts the conclusions that the authors want to reach, and the writing is heavily conditional, full of "it is as if" and "it could be that". The writing, it must be said, is sometimes unclear. Jargon intrudes; sometimes there are difficulties in translation. A heavier editorial hand might have been helpful.

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