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Creating a transformational space through narrative: looked after young people tell their life stories


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Laura Mazzoli-Smith, Newcastle University
Presentation at ESREA European Society for Research on the Education of Adults, Life History and Biography Network, March 2015

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Creating a transformational space through narrative: looked after young people tell their life stories

  1. 1. ESREA – European Society for Research on the Education of Adults Life History and Biography Network March 2015 Creating a transformational space through narrative: looked after young people tell their life stories Laura Mazzoli Smith, Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK
  2. 2. Introduction • Research study on a creative widening participation project run between three universities in the north-east of England • Minimal body of research on educationally successful care leavers • Life story narration to a public audience and subsequent life history interviews • Normative framing of these successful life stories • Provision of such a space where one group of young adults who succeeded can address another group at great risk of dropping out is very unusual
  3. 3. The life stories • Bobby aged 21. Family emigrated from Africa - Bobby removed from them by social services in the UK a year later. One main foster family and no further contact with birth family. • Duncan aged 22. Chose to move out of home in his early teens and subsequently lived with both a grand-parent and in foster care. • Alicja aged 21. Removed from a single mother in early teens . Had a number of care placements including one longer term foster placement.
  4. 4. Thematic life story analysis Theme similar features of each: 1) Detachment and critical reflection on younger self; metaphorically and actually a new vantage point and a place of arrival. 2) Narratives balanced individualistic and deterministic aspects with the fragility and contingency of life. 3) Gratitude/indebtedness to significant others - family, carers, teachers.
  5. 5. Narrative analysis of life histories 1) Critical detachment – spatial metaphors (Bobby): ‘I used to be stubborn, wouldn’t listen, quick tempered. I got angry a lot quicker until I got introduced to them. And usually when you get introduced to a foster parent, like they take you in, you sit on like a different seat to everyone else, if that makes sense… So she [foster mother] put me on a table and she brought me up as one of her own kids’. ‘They gave me a view of life, really’.
  6. 6. Narrative analysis of life histories 1) Critical detachment – narrative learning: Bobby: I never used to like tell them my story or, I learned a lot of sense when I started telling my story. I don’t know when that came about but I’m glad it did because most people that are care leavers, they’re afraid of telling people what they’ve been through. Sometimes, you kind of have to embrace it. And if you embrace it, you get rid of it. Laura: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You kind of take ownership of it rather than let it own you. That’s really interesting. Bobby: Wow! Like a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been talking like this, at all.
  7. 7. Narrative analysis of life histories 2) Agency and contingency – optimism (Bobby): ‘But you get what you’re given, and what you’re given, you have to make the most of it.’ Linking fear to failure (Duncan): ‘I have always had this overwhelming fear of regretting things and I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t do this or I didn’t do that and I feel like that is one of the scariest things I can think of and you are so helpless you can’t do anything about it...’
  8. 8. Narrative analysis of life histories 2) Agency and contingency - non-conformism (Bobby) : ‘Why would you conform to that instead of being as anyone else? You’re a normal human being, you just can’t let labels drag you down.’ Agency developed in the context of others (Alicja): ‘I think you sort of distance yourself from people in a way and I think that is when you start to rely on yourself…my mum doesn’t even care if I am going to school right now…it was my responsibility…it became my responsibility.’
  9. 9. Narrative analysis of life histories 3) Relationships and collective action - indebtedness and external referents (Bobby): ‘When growing up, one, I’ve no recollection of my parents or family, you know, all I remember is my mum’s name and what I told her of being an accountant, and who my brother is and my sister, and that was it, really’. ‘She brings you up like her own son. Honestly, like that family gave me an idea of what family is...That’s why I’m forever in their debt. Because I remember promising her that when I get older, I’d buy her a nice mansion…’
  10. 10. Narrative analysis of life histories 3) Relationships and collective action - narrative learning (Duncan): ‘…obviously listening to the two… I definitely was lucky to be put in with the family that I was and I am massively thankful for it because...I probably wouldn’t be at uni if it wasn’t for them’. Reciprocity (Alicja): ‘…she has so much faith in me and I had just as much back as what she gave me I gave back to her.’
  11. 11. A transformational space • Narratives which normalize achievement, problematizing the label; • a lack of intervention by professionals or researchers in the life story session; • narratives which link individual agency, collective action and social contingency; • the making available of non-normative stories and space for collective narrative learning; • the recognition of and learning from significant others.
  12. 12. 1. Normalizing achievement/ problematizing the label • Bobby described the ability to be what you want to be as both ‘normal’, and ‘a human right’ • ‘Excluded’, ‘marginalised’ or ‘at risk’ label, but desire for normality hence oppositional narrative • Narrative stance symbolically shifts Bobby from the category of an extraordinary achiever to a normally aspiring young person, speaking to others in the room ‘Decreased agency through learning occurs when people learn that things are too difficult’ (Biesta, 2008: 20)
  13. 13. 2. Lack of intervention by professionals /researchers • Novelty of narrating life stories and of context • Professionals and researchers were not involved in mediating the public telling of the life stories • Unscripted, (unknown – few scripts to draw from), freedom • Narrative qualities such as authenticity, immediacy increased the learning potential of the narratives
  14. 14. 3. Linking agency and contingency • No prioritising of either individual agency of the tellers, the support of others/organisations, or contingent facts as being the main drivers of success • Inter-dependence and interplay of agency, collective action, and structure made sense to narrators • Life stories created ‘horizons for action’, structure both enabling and constraining • Problem with interventions which individualise engagement/opportunity/risk/outcome; life stories distance themselves from this normative individualising of educational success and failure
  15. 15. 4. Non-normative stories and space for collective narrative learning • Non-normative life stories offered alternative possible futures and different scripts, unknown and possibly also unimagined • Narrative learning is a prerequisite for alternative narratives- need spaces for reflection and communication (Alheit and Dausien, 1999) • Private ‘problems’ become collective issues (Bauman, 2000) • Narrative capital (Goodson et al., 2010); ‘capacity’ to learn from one’s life not fixed but can be learned (Biesta, 2008)
  16. 16. 5. Recognising and learning from significant others • Focus on significant others /social relationships invites listeners to re-envision their roles and sense of agency • Space of narrative imagination, making strange that which is familiar (Andrews, 2014) • Multiple levels of narrative learning all depend on the social space of the narratives; the tellers learning from their lives, the tellers learning from significant others, the audience in the room learning from the tellers, the audience reflecting on and learning from their own lives and significant others
  17. 17. Conclusion • Not just individual stories of success but communal narratives of how particular systemic and relational beliefs and practices can realign normative educational trajectories • Public narrating of alternative discourses, reworking who has authority to speak and what can be said and thought • Not just policy makers/researchers who should listen to these life stories/histories, but impact when young people speak directly to others currently in care and the adults who are closest to them
  18. 18. References • Alheit, P. and Dausein, B. (2000) ‘Biographicity’ as a basic resource of lifelong learning. In P. Alheit et al. (eds), Lifelong Learning Inside and Outside Schools. Roskilde: Roskilde University. • Andrews, M. (2014) Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. • Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity. • Biesta, Gert (2008). Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life-course: Full Research Report ESRC End of Award Report, RES-139-25-0111. Swindon: ESRC. • Goodson, I. F., Biesta, G., Tedder, M., and Adair, N. (2010). Narrative Learning. London and New York: Routledge.