Primary education: listening and observing
Primary education: listening and observing

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3.1 A Learning Lives case study

Anne was a participant in the Learning Lives project. She was interviewed six times between 2004 and 2007, during a significant period of change in her life. With her husband and three children, Anne had uprooted in 2002 from one part of the country to another. The Learning Lives project gave Anne the opportunity to tell stories about this life-changing transition.

This reading is in the following sections:

  • meet Anne and find out a bit about her
  • the themes of Anne’s ‘life story’
  • how her life story creates potential for learning
  • how her life story creates potential for action and change.

Meet Anne

Anne, aged 38 and married for 16 years, was the mother of a teenage daughter and two infant sons. The family came originally from the urban Midlands of England where Anne had lived all her life until she and her husband decided to move to a village in the rural South West. She came from a close-knit family where she was accustomed to visiting parents, grandparents and sisters regularly and, despite close family ties and an established pattern of life, Anne and her husband took the risks involved in making a major change. They had no previous connection with the village they moved to and yet were willing to leave behind their familiar lives for the sake of living somewhere new that was close to the sea.

When she left school, Anne had trained and worked for several years as a hairdresser. She described herself as being a ‘people person’ who found enjoyment in that profession. In the village and through her son’s primary school, Anne came into contact with the government initiative Sure Start, becoming a volunteer mentor for the scheme. Subsequently she was invited to become ‘parent rep’ for the village at Sure Start organisational meetings and became active in a number of community groups. In time Sure Start employed her as a community development officer with responsibility for leading several projects for parents and children. Alongside her workplace learning were elements of formal education, including an NVQ 3 in Early Years Education. When the Sure Start initiative came to an end, Anne continued to be employed by her local authority as a community development officer.

Anne’s ‘story’

The ‘plot’ that emerges from Anne’s narrative is of a wife and mother resuming her career after moving to a different part of the country. She presented as a vigorous, active, enthusiastic and sociable person engaged in an exuberant quest to engage in life’s opportunities. Even the interviews were scarcely episodes of quiet reflection: she emerged as the epitome of the uninhibited multitasking mother, attending to her toddler, taking care of a pet, dealing with phone calls from work and phone calls about house improvements. She was excited by life and its possibilities and this exuberance characterises her stories about her own life, even when talking about family problems and conflicts.

Most striking during the research period was Anne’s resumption of her identity as a woman with a career. This resulted in stories about changes to routines, knowledge and skills and in her physical change. The clue to Anne’s perspective on the existence of a plot in her narrative is contained in the frequently used comment that she sees herself as a ‘people person’. In her new location, becoming a community development worker enables Anne to pursue her interest in people in new ways – going into housing estates and caravans to locate small children and ensuring their carers are aware of their rights and responsibilities. Anne relishes ‘being on a mission’ and meeting the challenge of coordinating people and resources in projects. She loves doing this in a work environment where she can co-operate with others she finds congenial. However, she has a daily challenge of reconciling her aspirations and preferences with her concerns about her domestic life.

Anne’s learning potential

In early interviews we heard many stories about Anne’s learning as a result of moving to a new home. Some adjustments were material such as how to cope with everyday matters like transport and shopping in a rural area. Others involved the way she related to her husband and children as she started to develop a new sense of identity in her new home and community. We heard of the skills and knowledge she gained from her voluntary and then her employed work for Sure Start. Anne’s stories were of the experiences in which and from which she learned.

During the final interview Anne was asked to reflect on the experience of taking part in the project and this shifted the quality of her responses, away from a descriptive account to a more reflective stance. She commented on what a rare opportunity it had been:

I’ve really enjoyed doing it. I’ve enjoyed doing it because it’s, it’s not very often that somebody sits there and lets you tell them about what you are and what you do and how you do your [pause] how your life has been, has been really.

(Interview 6, June 2007)

It was suggested that perhaps the experience was like talking with friends or with relatives. While she agreed that friends may well get together and reminisce, it was never to the extent that someone talks about themselves at length. She added that family members have so many interests and commitments that they would not listen to each other for long.

Anne’s action potential

There was an embodied manifestation of the changes that Anne had experienced by our fifth interview. Anne had started attending a slimming club and lost three stone in weight. She resembled far more the glamorous young hairdresser featured in photographs in the family home. She spoke of having regained interest in buying new clothes and caring once more about her appearance.

A change in Anne’s approach to telling stories was in the way she reported chronology: in our early interviews, Anne’s sense of time was mainly ‘family-centric’ – she recalled chronology in terms of when things had happened to family members. By the final interviews she was ‘organisation-centric’. She said she enjoyed taking part in the interviews and reading the transcripts and found they offered an important insight into herself and the changes she had experienced:

I’m doing more for a starter. I’m completely different in what I do. I’m working now. More confident in myself as I was three years ago, and more knowledgeable in what I do as well. The different outlook on things, you know, in my work, because I’d only ever been, as I say I’d only ever been a hairdresser.

(Interview 6, June 2007)

However, in the final interview Anne communicated some of her underlying anxieties about getting older and the personal costs that were involved in pursuing her job. She said it was a ‘horrible feeling that I’ve no baby in the house anymore’. She was moving beyond her motherhood identity to becoming someone who enjoys being at work and sees it as necessary to fulfil herself as a ‘people person’. At the same time she recognises the personal cost of being no longer available for her children in the way she was. Nevertheless her narrative justifies a departure from her established norms and patterns of belief:

I would have been a right miserable bugger or, you know, I don’t know how I’d have been. So life takes you in such funny ways you never know what’s there… so just go with it.

(Interview 6, June 2007)

Learning through reflection

The case study of Anne illustrates that the act of putting together a longitudinal version of your life story offers you a chance to learn about yourself. The Learning Lives project researchers say that the ‘stories’ you tell about yourself can have a big impact on how you see yourself as a learner and how you make choices as a learner:

Perhaps our most significant finding is that the differences between the stories people tell about their lives do indeed connect with ways in which people learn from their lives and that such learning affects how they conduct their lives. This not only suggests that life-stories and life-storying are important ‘vehicles’ or ‘sites’ for learning from life. It also suggests that the differences between stories matter for such learning.

(Tedder and Biesta, 2008, p. 26)

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