Chronotopic Viewpoint of Teachers’ Reflective and Reflexive Practices Through Digital Storytelling
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A key and vital issue arising from the research on teacher education concerns the relationships between professional culture, and personal and professional identity (Lortie 1975). Specifically, the matter of how teachers think about themselves and their professional growth frequently affects their confidence and approaches towards work and life (Peterman 2017). It is therefore timely and useful to explore how teachers might express and understand their personal and professional practices through an innovative approach that allows for reflexive thought leading to progressive, transformative action in and beyond classrooms. The practice in question is digital storytelling (DST) of a particular type.
Since time immemorial, we (as humans) have told stories of varying kinds to enculturate, teach and entertain. DST – the art of telling stories with digital media and tools – is a relatively recent innovation that commonly focuses on the creation and sharing of personal stories (Lambert 2013) as a means of expressing and understanding what we and others know and experience in our lives.
Yet, while we might take it as axiomatic that stories are ubiquitous and vitally serve to define who we are as individuals and what we might become, not all stories are equal. For example, some stories – especially narratives – tend to privilege characters, plot, conflict, setting, and points of view in events that do not link specifically to particular developmental histories or storytellers as real people. Many of these tales look and feel the same because they are essentially of the same structural-functional stock.
In stark contrast, other stories (e.g., Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel) take a more expansive view of time and space, and arguably position storytellers as active agents and storytelling as a performative, meaning-making act in its own right (cf., Emerson and Holquist 1986).
By way of explaining how narrative-based personal meaning making occurs in a particular context, this article views teaching as a reflective-reflexive practice. It shows through a vignette how a teacher learnt about his students and himself through a digital storytelling project in a Singaporean secondary school. In particular, the teacher’s reflective and reflexive storytelling changed his personal and professional identities irrevocably based on his evolving understanding of his students’ needs and interests, and his conceptions of himself as an individual.
Teaching as a Reflective-Reflexive Practice
Over recent decades, educators and other practitioners have published and communicated extensively about the importance and benefits of reflection in professional and personal life; the field of teacher education (both pre- and in-service) is no exception. Within the plethora of models and definitions available, there is a common viewpoint that reflection encourages teachers in their role as autonomous professionals but that methods differ. Theoretically and pragmatically, there is often an additional appeal to Dewey’s conceptions of reflection as a meaning-making process spawned from experience and grounded in attitudes that value personal and intellectual growth for the benefit and maintenance of society as a whole.
Nowadays, educational practitioners generally advocate two reflective options either separately or in combination. The first structures reflection squarely on the “nuts-and-bolts” of events and situations. Accounts of this kind tend towards detailed descriptions and the chronological recounts. “I went into class today and the first thing that happened was …”
The second and less common format for reflection is fundamentally introspective and reflexive in orientation. Typically, there are dual investigative foci on why things are the way they are and our parts in them. Reflexive thinkers usually base their ruminations on continuous questioning and the vital acknowledgement of the existence of multiple and equally valid answers.
A question arises at this point about the connection or relationship between reflective and reflexive practice. For some, these forms of thinking fall along a continuum where reflexivity represents a “mature” or “higher level” that is only attainable through prior routines and/or descriptive procedures. In this view, only the experienced and insightful can be reflexive.
An alternative perspective focuses less on differences by degree and more on variations in focus and intent. Simply stated, while reflective thinkers usually remain static and neutral about their subject matter, the reflexive turn is about learning in and from action. In short, reflexive practitioners are always searching for ways of doing things differently based on their evolving critical understandings of their situations. Thus, there are no prerequisites for reflexive thinking save for a driving sense of demonstrating personal agency in the name of making progress and improvements to our understandings and practices.
Ultimately, we can position reflexivity as a search for mindfulness and improvement that moves us beyond the realms of immediate experience towards new visions of a transformed world. However, this perspective taking and the professional and personal learning it fosters stems from a radically distinctive understanding of time, space, and situations.
In Bakhtin’s literary and theoretical terminology, a “chronotopic” viewpoint – derived from the Greek words χρόνος (chronos, time) and τόπος (topos, space) – characterizes the mutual relationship of time and space as one interconnected and mutually influencing whole surrounding the occurrence and organization of events. Educationally, a pervasive and conventional chronotope in use is assignment-based (Matusov 2015). From this position, there are normative expectations about students’ unconditional cooperation with their teachers’ teaching. The ontological and didactic aspects of the assignment chronotope in schools are instantiated and reinforced by the arrangement of furniture, management of talk, and the explicit and implicit control (management) of behavior in classrooms to achieve (mostly) the demonstration of short-term learning objectives with a predetermined endpoint.
Alternatively, a more transactional and uniquely individual educational chronotope is dialogic in nature where dialogism refers broadly to discourse we reference in response to other instances of discourse in the past and use to anticipate instances of discourse in the future. This stands in contrast to monologism where a single voice dominates and exploratory talk with others, for example, is alien and unnecessary. Within the dialogic purview, there is a responsiveness to students’ backgrounds, needs, and personal interests enacted through student-initiated inquiries, open-ended tasks, meaning-making, and social (i.e., multi-voiced) interactions within and across unbounded periods of time and space. By way of illustration, it is this second chronotope that informs the innovative digital storytelling learning journey of a particular teacher in a Singapore secondary school in the next part.
R. is a teacher and teacher educator with over 10 years’ experience in schools and a tertiary-level institution where he teaches drama to undergraduates. Starting in 2016, R. participated in 3-year research study investigating the uses of digital media and the arts as performance spaces in the telling of stories that map, document, and recount the changing historical, linguistic, cultural, and personal landscapes of Singapore. In the first year of the study, R. taught a class of 13-year-old students a mix of social studies and character and citizenship education in a specially created double-period (90 min) once a week for an entire academic year. A characteristic feature of R.’s pedagogy was the use of process drama conventions (e.g., tableaux, hot-seating, and improvization) as catalysts and contexts for personalized story creation by the class members.
On one noteworthy occasion, R. with the researchers’ input organized a class field trip to a riverside location in Singapore with cultural and historical links to the nation’s heritage in entrepôt trade (The name of this location in Singapore is “Clarke Quay,” 1.2906O N, 103.8465O E.). This is now a lively and attractive nightspot for locals and tourists.
R. invited the class to walk around the location and digitally record (using video and stills cameras) the sights and personal experiences. At the end of the morning, he tasked the students to make a digital story entitled, “What does Singapore mean to me?” They could use their existing digital assets and add other materials if so desired. R. set a time limit of 1-week for task completion and each student in the class (n = 32) successfully submitted a digital story of between 1 and 5 min in length. R.’s own reflexive story as a teacher unfolded in what transpired next. What follows is an exemplary case.
For illustrative purposes, student-T.’s story was immediately eye-catching and salient. Briefly, he presents a multilayered composition incorporating a combination of motion video, written words, and a musical soundtrack spanning a short timeline of (1-min, 16 s). Visually, there are 10 scenes sequenced to suggest the passage of a day from the early morning sunshine to the darkness of the night. Notably, there are establishing shots of river activity, central transitions from street scenes seen through the window of the school excursion bus, and encounters at a busy public transport interchange and bustling shopping mall. Throughout, T. represents time and space through brisk cuts and the use of a software filter to accelerate and destabilize the video playback. He also adds several written words and punctuation (e.g., RUSHING, BUSY!!!!!, crowded!!, RUSH-HOUR, CROWDED!!!!) in the lower-third of some screens. Aurally, T. embellishes and extends his story with a freely downloaded and trimmed Hip-Hop track featuring a synthesized voice that repeats the phrase: “Human, now I stand alone.”
Well T.s’ story took me by surprise because I actually expected the class to give a so-called ‘politically-right’ narrative saying that ‘This is Singapore’ and they describe it. T.’s story was different because it was his first-person account; like I could see him in the story. So his voice was very strong. It was a video without spoken words but the written words, for example, ‘rushing,’ ‘crowded,’ and how he punctuates them with all capital letters and punctuation (four exclamation marks) shows a design and an intelligence. And how he uses motion and his spatial awareness to drive home a narrative. Like, using the escalator [in the shopping mall] and speeding it up. At no point in the video was he still. He’s always moving and rushing, and that motion itself is very visceral and also because he forces the viewer to be the first-person. The film didn’t show himself rushing, he took it from the perspective of the viewer. So he drove home that sense of rush. Obviously, if he had had to write it out he wouldn’t have been able but he showed it without writing.
No classroom, especially when it comes to talking about the nation and ideas of the nation … is politically neutral anymore. There’s a certain messaging that the classroom has to say. And often students do try to give the politically-right narrative but we don’t want that because it’s not genuine. We’ve got to know what they really feel in order to know what we’ve got to do about what they really feel. And I think creating that space – that safe space where they know that whatever they say will be heard and respected, and they don’t get judged – is important.
I think engagement. From a very ‘selfish’ point of view – oh, I want the class to improve on something, I want the class to do well, I want the results to be better. They’ve got to be engaged and they can’t be engaged if they feel they’re not respected or heard. The students will not want to listen to you. They won’t want to engage with you as a person. But engaging them at that level would bring about the benefits of improved results and motivation.
In these opening remarks, R. articulates in clear and explicit terms his thinking about teaching and the circumstances he believes would be most conducive and necessary in moving away from the assignment chronotope in schools. In particular, he places a premium on creating the “space” for his students to express their viewpoints and explore their ideas and feelings in their own ways. Interestingly, we might also see this same space as a self-created context and motivation for his own contemporaneous in situ professional growth and learning.
The one thing I learnt and I think has had an impact on me as a teacher was to see a class as individuals and not just as a class. Because many times we are so busy we go into a class, we already have a profile of that class, and we think this is what is needed for the class but not as individuals in the class. The DST project helped me see that I’m dealing with individuals and that’s because there was a space where individual voices could be heard. Now, what that translated into was it allowed me to plan better. Because now I know exactly who each individual is and what his or her perspectives might be, what his or her needs might be. It helped me factor into my lesson planning. Of course, it’s harder because it’s tailored for them but it allowed me to address the class’ needs better because now I know their needs because I know them as individuals which I think is missing from a traditional classroom setting because we tend to generalize the needs. And because we generalize may be because for efficiency reasons we actually don’t meet their needs even though we think we are but we are not.
What Was Learnt Personally and Professionally?
In our final analysis, a key tenet of R.’s storytelling is his own search for authenticity and relevance in the classroom in relation to his students’ work, needs, and interests. In other words, he was involved in contextualized, on-going identity work and this, we suggest, represents a shift change especially in terms of being responsive and nurturing towards children. It is also growth – not as a form of incrementalism that can be isolated and quantified – but as something that is aspectival and qualitative in intent and focus.
R.’s mindfulness and desire to make differences that matter in education require a critical repositioning and repurposing of his work towards student-centricity and away from the conventional and prevalent assignment chronotope that typifies most secondary school work in Singapore. This occurred, we surmise, through his reflective engagement with his students’ digital stories (T., in particular). He learnt that they were unique and distinctive statements of who his students were as people and not humdrum exercises in literacy skilling, for example.
This movement or transformation, we posit, is neither accidental nor inconsequential. Rather, in our view, it represents purposeful learning alongside others and is characteristic of a longer or “bigger” educational chronotope that is fundamentally dialogic and indelible in nature. That is, once a reflexive insight has occurred, it remains as a motivator for action. We hope we have shown how personalized digital storytelling can play a crucial role in this process that we view as a critical and essential part of teachers’ professionalism in contemporary media contexts.
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