Narratives of the Science classroom: An approach to Dialogic/Performance Analysis

Year: 2008

Author: Arnold, Jenny

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The focus of this paper is a discussion of methodological dilemmas arising from the application of a dialogic/performative approach to narrative analysis in a study of student identity and agency in science classrooms. There has been a call for a focus on student identity within science education research to address a widespread and persistent trend of student disengagement with science in the middle years of schooling. Responding to this call, the study has used a poststructuralist theoretical framework to investigate the fluid and multiple identities students occupied in two different science classrooms, and provided insight into student learning and meaning making within ‘pipeline’ (Aikenhead 2005) science curricula. The study utilised rich classroom video data filmed with the support of the International Centre for Classroom Research at The University of Melbourne. Focusing on lived narratives within science classrooms, the study is differentiated from traditional approaches to narrative research that focus on narratives told. This paper contributes to contemporary discussions about research conducted within the borderland between narrative and poststructuralist approaches to educational research.

Reissman (2008) describes dialogic/performance analysis as a broad and varied interpretive approach to oral narrative that makes selective use of elements of both thematic and structural analysis to interrogate how talk among speakers is dialogically produced and performed as narrative. Like the examples provided by Reissman, this study is concerned with the way identities are dialogically enacted in social contexts. However, rather than narratives told, the study focussed on narratives enacted. This difference follows a shift from representational narrativity to ontological narrativity, in recognition that narrative is an ontological condition for social life (Somers 1994). As Reissman points out, the dialogic/performance approach pushes the boundaries of what is and is not considered to be narrative analysis. The approach utilised in this classroom study sits within Rosiek and Clandinin’s (Rosiek and Clandinin 2007) mapping of the territory of narrative research in the borderland between narrative and poststructuralist approaches. The paper is concerned specifically with the challenges and dilemmas faced by the researcher in employing a narrative approach within a poststructuralist interpretive framework in classroom settings.

Unlike previous studies in science education that have utilised structuralist lenses to investigate possible identity-types available in science classrooms, this study has incorporated into the core conception of identity the categorically destabilizing dimensions of time, space and relationality (Somers 1995, p606). Using the post-structuralist lens of identity as performative (Butler 1990) to investigate the fluid and multiple identities students occupied within a science classroom, the study aims to shed light into the processes through which students constantly enact and become socially recognisable as participants in science classroom practices. The focus on ontological narratives made it possible in this study to consider the way in which power installed itself within these practices.

Two science classrooms in different schools in Melbourne were chosen as sites for the study. The author and the research team observed and digitally recorded nine lessons in each classroom, corresponding to complete units of work in each case. Four video cameras were used to capture each of the science lessons with a focus on the teacher, two focus student groups and a wider view of the whole classroom. Following each lesson the teacher and two focus students were interviewed using video-stimulated recall (Clarke 2006) wherein the student interviewee was given the play/pause/fast-forward control of the video of themselves in a play-back view concurrently with the whole class video and asked to pause at moments in the lesson significant to them and to explain their choice. These interviews and the author’s observations were used as adjuncts to the analysis of the classroom videos. Ontological narratives situated in the site of the classroom, or storylines, and the students’ positioning within these were the focus of the analysis.

The study was concerned with student positioning in science classrooms within ongoing lived narratives. The complex narrative environment of the classroom called for a dynamic framing of what is and is not a narrative. To this end the researcher adopted Harré and van Langenhove’s (1999) notion of ‘storyline’. A storyline refers to a mutually enacted narrative within which actors position themselves as recognisable persons in the social setting. Storylines can unfold as well-oiled repertoires, with actors taking up positions in relation to each other and contributing to the unfolding storyline, or can be contested as actors reposition themselves in relation to one another. Storylines can be interwoven and can often compete, as positions are negotiated. The analysis of the classroom videos concentrated upon the identification and interpretation of storylines from within the science classrooms. Findings from the study include the identification of normative practices within the science classrooms and the documentation of the way in which student identity was performatively accomplished within and through these practices.

The paper provides an explanation of the way the author as researcher approached the identification, interpretation and representation of storylines. An episode from lesson transcripts is used to illustrate choices made to maintain a sense of the situated and dialogical qualities of ontological narratives. The paper concludes with some observations about the need for greater attention to methodological issues related to research intended to integrate narrative and poststructuralist approaches to educational research in classroom settings.