Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

The use of learner biography as a means of helping students to engage with a new field of enquiry

Carol Hogan
Language Education, Bunbury Campus
Edith Cowan University
Contemporary theories of adult learning stress the importance of the background knowledge, attitudes and habits of mind that the learner brings to a new learning enterprise (Mezirow, 1981). Successful teaching of adults depends on a teacher's ability to help students find meaningful connections between "who they have been" as learners in a particular field and "who they might become" as they engage with new information and new ways of working with it. This paper advocates the incorporation of biographical and autobiographical narratives into university teaching, particularly with novices in a discipline area. The strategies advocated are based on the premise that when students are encouraged to reflect on, construct and articulate their histories as learners they are better able to build on their strengths, work constructively on their weaknesses, gaps and blind spots. When used appropriately, such approaches can also help students to reflect critically on important themes and affirm their reasons for choosing to enter a particular academic or professional discipline.

I teach in Language Education at a small regional campus of a much larger metropolitan university. Every year I am struck by the diversity of background and life experiences of the students who enter our program with the intention (however vague) of joining the teaching profession. When I give a lecture on language acquisition, it must be received very differently by a forty-year-old mother of four, an eighteen-year-old who is himself just emerging from the grunting phase of language development, and a young woman whose parents are profoundly hearing impaired. There are students who are in the course because of beloved and inspiring teachers; others who still nurse resentments from the damage done to them by their schooling; many are neutral; a few are on a mission of one kind or another.

Diversity of this kind can be viewed in a number of ways. If we are locked into a rigid, content-based curriculum it can be simply an irrelevance: the task of the students is to learn the content and they will do so according to their individual capacities. If we care about teaching well, diversity can even be a nuisance: how are we to design a course that will support the strugglers, challenge advanced students and satisfy everyone in between? Both of these paths seem unproductive, leading ultimately to student alienation and teacher frustration. But if we begin to view diversity as a positive resource for teaching and learning (Bennett, 1994) some interesting new possibilities emerge for the ways we might introduce, teach and assess in our discipline areas.

For the purposes of this forum I have focused on the introductory session, the lecture or tutorial that marks the beginning of a student's induction into the knowledge base and the "ways of knowing" of an academic discipline or a professional field. This is an important moment, and one that deserves a more adequate ritual than reading through the unit outline! Over the last two years I have used an interviewing/writing strategy that has been successful in engaging the students with central issues in my field of literacy education from the beginning of their first class. Colleagues have used variations on this approach in different courses, so I am confident that the generic outline can be adapted to a wide range of contexts:

Literacy biographies

Besides the aims outlined at the start of this paper, this strategy has a number of additional benefits: Jerome Bruner (1973) noted the powerful role of narrative as one of our dominant "ways of knowing". Giving an account of one's life experience is usually much more than a listing of events. The interviewee and the writer both order these events, select and shape them through language and most importantly, invest them with meaning. I will quote a brief extract, written during a class exercise very similar to the one described above, to demonstrate some of the learning potential of biographical strategies:
Maria remembers being angry most of the time at school. This was because the teachers always put her in the dummies group because she didn't speak much English. She was angry with the teachers and also angry at the other kids in her groups because they weren't interested in learning and she knew they were holding her back. She never expressed these feeling, mainly, she thinks, because she lacked confidence, she desperately wanted people to like her and especially because well-bred Italian girls didn't speak out. When she got to high school she was tested and put into top groups for most subjects. After that she really blossomed but she still remembers how it felt to have her own language and culture looked down on. Maria is full of drive and energy. I don't think anyone will be able to put her down ever again.
This extract from a longer biography has two important and immediate implications for my own teaching practice: firstly, it provides the interviewer (and the class, when it is shared) with an appreciation of Maria's personal struggle and of some of her consequent strengths. For me as a teacher, I am alerted to the fact that a class member has valuable, first-hand expertise in what it is like to be a bilingual learner in an unsympathetic context. With Maria's permission, I will draw on that expertise at relevant moments in the course.

The biography raises some important themes that will recur often during my students' four years of teacher education: the gap between competence and performance, for example; the role of grouping in instruction; relationships between language, culture and identity; the role of language as social practice - among others. In biography, theoretical issues such as these are given "a local habitation and a name". We begin to understand that "theory" is really just a (temporarily) coherent explanation for the kinds of things that happen to us in our lives. I have found biographical assignments, where students follow research leads from issues in people's lives, to be a powerful way of fostering reading and of bridging the perceived gap (gulf?) between theory and practice in education.

Finally, personal narratives are invitational (Jalongo & Isenberg, 1995). When Maria's story was read to the group, it evoked similar or contrasting accounts from other students. Together these accounts built up a comprehensive picture of the "territory" of foreign language acquisition, not in the authoritative way that a lecture does, but in a way that raises questions for further reading and discussion. Narratives are open to interpretation and debate - skills we surely want to encourage and foster amongst tertiary students. At their best, personal narratives of involvement in a disciplinary field say something important about that field and our reasons for investing a large part of lives in it. Here is a final extract to demonstrate:

Dan is returning to study as a "young mature age student".... He would never be here, he says, if it wasn't for his year three teacher, who taught him to read. Dan describes his family upbringing in a word - "appalling"- and explains that reading books gave him a haven of escape from abuse and criticism.... He learnt from books that life didn't have to be the way it was in his family....As a teacher and as a parent, Dan intends to share his love of reading good literature. He wishes he could thank Mrs Thomas and that she could see him now on his first day at uni!
For the teaching profession, and perhaps for other professional disciplines as well, narratives of this kind can serve to keep us connected to the moral and intellectual core of our work, especially at a time when the agenda for universities seems to have been seized by interests that have little concern with students (except as funded EFTSs) and less with educational values.


Bennett, Barrie (1994). Co-operative Learning: weaving the power of instruction into the process of literacy. Keynote Address, Australian Reading Association 20th Annual Conference, Perth, 13th July.

Bruner, J. (1973). The Relevance of Education. New York: W.W. Norton.

Jalongo, M. and Isenberg, J. (1995). Teachers' Stories: From Personal Narrative to Professional Insight. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1981). A Critical Theory of Adult Learning and Education. Adult Education, 32(1), 3-24.

Please cite as: Hogan, Carol (1998). The use of learner biography as a means of helping students to engage with a new field of enquiry. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 139-141. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/hogan-ca.html

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