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The power of narrative

In February 2020, I was spending a lot of time at the British Library, researching for a book I was writing. The BL is a great international hub and at that time there were thousands of students and researchers passing through every day. I caught Covid of course. Little was known about it then. No vaccinations, no tests; we just had to tough it out and hope for the best. I was seriously ill for quite a while and, like so many other people, my life shrunk in scope and range. This week, nearly three years later, I ventured back to the British Library and what a joy it was.

As I stepped through the front door, I thought of Aristotle’ concept of eudaimonia which means something like well-being or human flourishing. The idea was explored helpfully by my colleague David Hargreaves, like myself, an Emeritus Fellow at Wolfson College in one of his pamphlets for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (Hargreaves, 2008). In this pamphlet, he wrote about the moral purpose of schooling and implications for learning; he explained that eudaimonia is about how flourishing arises from actions that improve our lives and society. For me, resuming my visits to the British Library felt like I was living the good life in an Aristotelian sense.

The big exhibition at the BL focused on Alexander the Great. An incredibly rich collection of ancient texts which tells a fascinating story about his life. Not a single story actually, but many stories in which myths are constructed in different epochs to serve their author’s purposes. I was delighted to learn that Alexander’s tutor and mentor was none other than Aristotle. I hadn’t known that they were contemporaries. This was just one detail in a story, full of myths and spin, that supported Alexander’s conquests and sustained him in power for decades. Hundreds of years after his death, the many stories about him continued to work their magic. The experience of being immersed in all these ancient texts underscored for me the power of narrative.

The concept of narrative is central to understanding the human condition. Jerome Bruner argues that the construction of narrative is an inherent dimension of being human, enabling us to continuously construct our identities and navigate our pathways through life (Bruner, 2002). Narrative has a central place in our work to support non-positional teacher leadership. One of the key strategies for empowering people in the HertsCam Network is to provide scaffolding for the construction of narratives. This is multi-faceted. For example, we ask people to start with their own situation, identity, values and concerns. We make it clear that, as individuals, they are at the centre of the story. We help people to plan a process of development in which they set the direction and design the path of their actions.

We also scaffold the sharing of narratives in school-based, teacher leadership support groups and at network events. These narratives contain ideas and information that others can use. They also form the basis of exploratory dialogue through which we build knowledge together. Such knowledge is not codified and fixed, but manifests in the form of an ongoing fluid and multi-layered conversation. The narratives that people share in networking scenarios are also a source of mutual inspiration. This is essentially a moral enterprise – each narrative being a case of a teacher choosing to remedy a matter of social injustice. When someone says that they are concerned that a particular practice could be improved and developed, it is usually based on an observation that certain children are not being enabled to learn to their full capacity. To choose to address this anomaly is a moral choice.

Being the author of your own narrative is powerful in that it helps to develop a sense of being in control of your destiny. The constructing and telling of your narrative necessarily involves self-awareness which leads to enhanced self-efficacy beliefs. Such authorship also enhances professional learning because it involves deeper thinking and self-evaluation. Alexander the Great’s imprint on the world was immense of course and teachers’ ambitions are usually more modest. Nevertheless, we should be aware that narrative plays an important role in our endeavours as human agents.


Bruner, J. (2002) Making stories. Harvard University Press: London.

Hargreaves, D. (2008) Deep Learning: why should they learn? London: Specialist Schools and Academies Trust

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