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Barone paints picture of education with narrative research

March 19, 2009

Professor Thomas Barone is an academic storyteller whose narrative research offers vicarious participation in the lives of students and teachers and evokes thoughtful conversations and fresh perceptions about learning.

In his work with the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education at Arizona State University, Barone strives to identify the field of narrative education research and its future, specifically how it can be used to define good teaching and reach more people than traditional scientific research.

“Who should read educational research? In traditional form, the specialized language can be off-putting to lay people,” Barone explained. “If we want our research to make a difference, how do we make our research text sufficiently engaging or accessible to people who are not educators or educational specialists and still call it scholarly? Can it be scholarship and be accessible to a broader audience?”

In addition to his service as executive director of ASU’s Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Curriculum Studies, Barone teaches courses in the program with that emphasize qualitative research methods.His 2008 article published in Qualitative Inquiry , “A Return to the Gold Standard? Questioning the Future of Narrative Construction as Education Research,” was named the Outstanding Article in Narrative Theory by the Narrative and Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Narrative research is a subfield of qualitative research that deals with the qualities of the human experience. It has been recognized as an important variety of research in various disciplines outside the field of education, such as healthcare, women’s studies and anthropology. Barone collects and analyzes stories from teachers and students to provide a literary portrait of the educational setting.

“What have been left out of traditional research, very often, are the additional perspectives of the research subjects. We collect and make visible the stories of the people who are collaborators in the research—teachers, students, principals administrators,” Barone explained. “What is really important is to allow readers of the research to vicariously participate in the lives of these people so they re-experience it for themselves to reflect more deeply on issues that are related to education.”

Barone is co-authoring a new book with his mentor at Stanford University, Elliot Eisner, retired professor of Education and Art at Stanford University. The methodological book, titledImagination and Method: Arts-Based Forms of Qualitative Research, provides examples of qualitative research and discusses various issues related to the discipline using those examples.

“Arts-based research is an approach to research that uses aesthetic principles and ideas to shape the content produced by the research,” Eisner said. “Literature, poetry, film, painting, are all art forms that help people become aware of aspects of the world that they might not notice without these forms. So we’re trying to take those ideas that pertain to the arts and apply them to the educational settings, to settings that can be studied through the social sciences.”

Eisner, who has been a leader promoting innovative art-based forms of qualitative research, said Barone’s work at ASU is influential in the field because it has helped arts-based research gain credibility for helping people understand research by generating emotions that then affect outcome.

“It promotes is a sense of empathy, so you can feel the experiences,” he said. “Any time you come up with something that’s new and credible, you begin to influence the way of doing things. He certainly has done that.”

“Even in very prestigious journals in the field of education, there is recognition of a need for this,” Barone noted. “It’s not to displace other forms of research. It’s to present a complementary form of research.”

In his 2001 award-winning book Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching, Barone used this method to examine the concept of the “educational imaginary,” which he describes as the images and anecdotes that often define public schools.

“The public has certain impressions about what schools and teachers and students are like. Sometimes those images and anecdotes serve to distort reality rather than reveal it,” he said. “More and more, good teaching is being equated with teachers’ abilities to have students improve their test scores.”

The book was a case study of a North Carolina art teacher and included interviews of former students with biographical portraits describing how the teacher had affected their lives and an analysis of what these stories convey about the prevailing notion of good teaching.

“I attempted to allow readers to vicariously participate in the life stories of these former students to understand the wide array of consequences teachers have on students. Schooling and learning is about more than just test scores. Teaching is a craft that involves conveying to students not only skills and content, it also is a result of interactions involving habits of mind and behavioral attitudes,” he said.

“One of the reasons for doing narrative research is not to come up with final versions of the truth about educational phenomena or prevailing policies and practices, but rather to have people think skeptically about various dimensions of prevailing policies and practices…to ask questions that hopefully enrich an ongoing conversation,” Barone said.

“What is a good teacher? There is, I believe, confusion about that notion,” he noted. “One of the questions I raise is whether there are value judgments implied in this notion of what constitutes a good teacher. What does that mean, then, in the whole enterprise of teaching and learning if there’s not one way of viewing what good teaching is?”