Life History and Collective Memory as Methodological Strategies: Studying Teacher Professionalism

Article excerpt

The life history method, which achieved a prominent position in the Chicago tradition of sociological research in the early 1920s, has been widely adopted for educational inquiries since the 1980s (Casey, 1995). Ball and Goodson (1985) pioneered a series of studies on teachers' professional lives and careers. Broadfoot and others (1987) in their comparative study explored the ways institutional structures, ideological traditions and policy initiatives mediate teacher thinking. Other life history researchers unveiled female teachers' oppressed experiences in the current of postmodernity (Choi & Tang, 2005; Middleton, 1989; Nelson, 1992). The power of the life history method in illuminating subjective teacher experiences in social historical contexts has made it 'probably the only authentic means of understanding how motives and practices reflect the intimate intersection of institutional and individual experience in the postmodern world (Dhunpath, 2000, p.544).

In this regard, we made an attempt to employ the life history method to study teacher professionalism, an area of concern which has been increasingly tied up with educational quality and global competition at the turn of the twenty-first century. Individual life history has been useful in highlighting the uniqueness of personal trajectories in the institutional contexts. Nevertheless, as our study of twelve beginning teachers (1) gradually unfolded, we were challenged by a number of shared patterns of teacher professionalism manifested among the informants. This led us to experiment in using the collective memory method.

This paper aims at explaining why the combined methods of life history and collective memory are considered useful in analyzing teachers' professionalism. We first give a brief account of the study, which provides the background for the understanding of the methodological innovation. Then a few examples are given to illustrate how data analysis was carried out both at an individual and a collective group level. Finally we discuss the potentials of the combined use of life history and collective memory in educational research.

Development of the Study Design

The Life History Method

Our study is situated in recurrent context of concern about the quality of education and concern about teacher professionalism. There has been a general impression that teachers fall short of societal expectation in playing their professional roles (Choi, 2001). Thus we were interested in a systematic inquiry into the features of teachers' professionalism. The study was initially launched employing the life history method because it was deemed powerful for the analysis of individual beginners' subjective career experiences and the situational responses of the self to daily interactional contingencies (Denzin, 1989). We intended to gather some knowledge of what influenced the development of teachers' professionalism after they entered teaching and what contributed to the gaps. We purposefully allowed in the sampled primary school teachers variables such as initial commitment to teaching, gender, teaching subjects and types of schools in order that rich biographical and contextual data could be collected. The twelve teachers, who were classified into three groups according to their initial commitment (2) to teaching before entering the profession, were followed through in the two-year study. Four research questions guided the inquiry.

1. What are the societal expectations of a professional teacher as expressed in public discourses?

2. What characterized the teachers' concepts and practices as a professional teacher in their beginning years?

3. What are the factors contributing to the professional socialization of the teachers and what are the dynamics involved in the professional socialization processes?

4. What are the similarities and differences, if any, between the societal expectations and the realities of teachers' professionalism as a collective group? …