Paper presented in the International Narrative Therapy Program
Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, South-Australia, 24.11.2003
Co-creating Preferred Stories in School – An Exploration
The desire to “understand” and “change”
are as much symptomatic as they are revolutionary. Spivak
The human mind is not a container to be filled, but a fire
to be lightened. Plutarkhos
This article has not been born yet. It will be born into the
reality that exist between the written word and the reader. It
will be born into the space where the meanings unfold through
the experience of reading. Words in this article are like caterpillars
out of which you, my reader, make butterflies: simultaneously
finding and creating. Life is too serious a game in order for
us to claim that it should be defined only in one way.
Introduction no. 2
During my 15 years long career as a Finnish school psychologist
I have been struggling with many dilemmas, but there is one above
all. That is: how to be with without being in control? Or how
to conduct therapeutic conversations without reproducing the modern
processes of normalizing and power? And still be influential.
How to discover without directing? (Hoyt, 2001, p. 265) How to
influence without manipulating? Is it possible to do therapy without
becoming an instrument of social control, without participating
and contributing, often unknowingly, to the construction or maintenance
of dominant discourses of normalizing and oppression?
I have had to face this dilemma in a special way because I´m
doing my job in a very special context, that is, in the context
of school. A psychologist working in a school setting in Finland
is usually working in an institutional culture that is informed
by the values and injustices of the dominant society (see also
Berndt & al.,1997). When tracing the history of this culture
we can see how modern processes of the judgement of people´s
actions are intimately associated with, and in the service of,
reproducing our society´s constructed norms.
A school psychologist has to deal with all the special characteristics
of the school context in situations where he or she is often overloaded
with cases and different – and often contradictory - expectations
coming from teachers, parents, pupils, administrators etc. Traditionally
schools are also functioning or ”factory breathing”
in a special rhythm of time: 45 minutes work and 15 minutes break,
45 minutes work and 15 minutes brake… In this context a
psychologist is confronting a huge amount of problems considering
learning, behaviour or mental health. My question during the last
15 years has been: how to deal with these problems in a way that
would both appreciate the persons involved and open up rich counterplots
for the problem stories in a minimum of time.
In the following I am describing a practice that, applied within
the narrative metaphor, positions the practitioner so that he
or she can try to avoid the trap of using oppression, and can
instead ask questions that privilege the people who are consulting
as a primary author of the stories of their lives and their accounts
of the identity. But before doing this it is, however, necessary
to touch and illuminate three concepts that have been crucial
while seeking my way to scaffold, at the same time, appreciative
and transformative conversations. These concepts are: discourse,
knowledge and dialogue.
Discourses of School
“Discourse” is a shorthand term to describe how characteristic
ways of speaking develop in particular social context. Burr (1995,
p. 48) defines this term in more detail: “A discourse
refers to a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images,
stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce
a particular version of events.” Foucalt´s (1980)
description refers to both what can be said and thought, and also
who can speak and with what authority. Discourse viewed in this
manner suggests that meaning results not from the language itself,
but from institutionalized discursive practises which constrain
its use and pre-empt alternative uses and meanings. Hence, discourse
can be viewed to reflect a prevailing structure of social and
power relationships which are actively constitutive in relationships.
(Madigan, 1998, p. 6)
Because schools are distinctive social contexts, we can talk
of school discourse. Also in schools “people constitute
discourse and are constituted through discourse.” (White,
1991, p.122) The words we use come to shape our thinking and acting.
And in turn, the ways we think and feel influence what we speak
about. There are lots of taken-for-granted assumptions that shape
our experience of what happens in school. Because they are taken
for granted, it is hard to notice how these assumptions structure
relations between people and even shape the functioning of school
institute. For example, behind the description of someone as “gifted”,
there is a discourse about intelligence that assumes many things
about what it means to be called “gifted”. (Winslade
& Monk, 1999, p. 53)
Once an individual becomes part of society´s discourse
certain cultural “truths” are then integrated and
privileged, thereby restraining the construction of alternatives.
Words like “disabled”, “class clown”,
“school refuser”, “unmotivated”, “maladjusted”,
“gifted”, “dysfunctional family”, “diligent”,
“conduct disorder” are all words behind which lies
an implicit standard of normality or “gaze”. Foucault
writes (1980): ”There are no needs for arms, physical
violence, material constrains. Just gaze. An inspecting gaze,
a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising
to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus
exercising this surveillance over, and against himself.”
So it is often a person´s strongly held belief in the culturally
accepted description that keeps the person involved with the particular
problem. Problems are the products of discursive conditions, or
ways of speaking, which have placed the person in problematic
positions in the story he is telling about life. (Drewery &
We are “always-already social”. One cannot stand
outside of discourse, but one can be selective about which discourses
fit better with our values and have less harmful effects on the
wider community. John Shotter calls the taken-for-granted words,
and underlying ideas behind social practices that often masquerade
as truth, as fossilized or dead words. They bewitch our understanding
and in order for us to come out from their effects we must, he
says, “bring these dead, but nonetheless extremely authoritative
words back to life, we must re-dialogize them, bring them into
living (dialogigal) contact with other words.” (Shotter,
2003, p. 11) Narrative metaphor and deconstructing practises is
one way of conceptualising the process by which wider societal
discourse and the normative rules this construct can be seen to
operate and inform our sense of who we are in the world. Considering
a persons identity as textual and bringing forth peoples local
knowledges can be seen as a counter discursive practice that,
in the best- case scenario, can bring to light the gaps or inconsistencies
in the problem discourse and show the way to a preferred story.
The Politics of Knowing
During the last ten years it has been important and meaningful
for me to explore the basic philosophical assumptions in my work.
This exploration has led me to seek answers for example to the
questions like “what is knowledge?”, “where
is knowledge?”, “how to get knowledge?” This
ongoing process has added some more consciousness to my actions:
everything I do as a therapist seems to be - after this research
- a part of a bigger wholeness. And this process has also guided
to realize that therapy is for me – as Gergen has defined
it – “a con-joint ethical construction of the real
and good” ( Gergen, 1998, p. xii).
Doing therapy is not an innocent activity. How knowledge is produced
and used in our meetings with people consulting us has always
consequences on people´s lives and sense of meaning. We
should never take for granted the effects in another person´s
life of what we say. Language is not a neutral “tool”
used to get the real work done in therapy: language is where the
real work happens. The thinking, knowing human being, the mapmaker,
is a living process of knowing and the product of that process
at the same time. There is not a separate map on the other hand
and a separate territory on the other. Instead, the map itself
is always action in the territory it tries to describe (Malinen,
2001, p. 214) Everything the mapmaker is doing, believing, appreciating,
dreaming is also all the time effecting, constructing and re-constructing
the territory. From this, it follows that as mapmakers, therapists,
human beings we are always deeply responsible for the actions,
words, dreams we are constantly creating together with the persons
Knowledge is constructed during the mutual process of inquiry
and is not already there waiting to be discovered. We generate
knowledge with each other through language. Knowledge is relational
and is embodied and generated in language and our everyday practices
(Anderson, 1997, p. 201).
Language can be seen both as a carrier and a creator of culture´s
epistemological codes, and people constitute discourses and are
constituted through the conventions of institutional discourses.
During the last years this notion has carried me away from the
“gaze” of the modern science to the “voices”
of – as Foucault defines them – local knowledges.
The reality we work with is not “out there” but something
we produce – and something that can change as well. Different
knowledges have different claims to their relationship to different
purposes and histories. Naming, understanding and meaning-making
are human undertakings that are realized differently across different
Language is also essentially a differentiating medium, with every
word separating that which is named or indicated from that which
is not (absent, contrary). Thus, whenever we declare what is the
case or what is good, we use words that privilege certain existents
while thrusting the absent and the contrary to the margins (Gergen
et al. 2001, p. 1). According to Stephen Madigan “we
position ourselves in therapy, both as clients and therapists,
along rhetorical lines of right and wrong. Choosing our semantic
posture is shaped through an ethic of what we consider responsible.
Therapy is discourse, and discourse is the stories of rhetoric,
and rhetoric is political. Narrative practice can be viewed as
disputing the rhetoric of problems and political scaffolding which
supports them.” (Madigan, 1998, p. 105) While one can
never be outside of context nor not shaping interactions, we can
always examine how these practices are conducted. Critical does
not mean finding the correct standpoint, but it means understanding
how we come to stand where we are. One needs to be accountable
in his or hers activities and critically examine how fact production
is performed and achieved, because too many issues of power and
manipulation are invisible in one´s theoretical positions.
Michael White writes: “Since we are all caught up in
a net or web of power/knowledge, it is not possible to act apart
from this domain, and we are simultaneously undergoing the effects
of power and exercising this power in relation to others.
(White, 1990, p. 22) If power is assumed to permeate all aspects
of our efforts to know, and language is theorized as constitutive
rather than representational, a matrix of enabling and constraining
boundaries rather than mirror, then one way
to be non-powerful is to be powerful for the other. We can be
directed towards this by creating spaces for transformative dialogues.
A Dialogical Perspective
What is “genuine dialogue?” How can we create a place
where we experience our connection with each other through our
very differences? Where the tension of our difference –
and our meeting across that difference – generates a fresh
experience of you, of me, and of us with one another?
Dialogue has to do something with connectedness and inspiration.
It stands in opposition to everything that is destructive for
curiosity. The main enemies seem to be objectification processes
related to various forms of “knowing already”. Knowing
already dissolves the need to look beyond averages or categories.
It is the prime source of nonparticipation. (Riikonen, 1999, p.
141) What is called genuine dialogue is closely linked to the
concept of relational responsibility. Dialogue is in fact an enactment
of relational responsibility.
Transformative dialogue can be viewed as any form of interchange
that succeeds in transforming a relationship between those committed
to otherwise separate and antagonistic realities (and their related
practices) to one in which common and solidifying realities are
under construction. (Gergen et al, 2001, p. 2) Through dialogue,
or as Shotter talks about, through the relational process of the
“dialogically structured activity occurring between us”,
we engage in a mutual process in which we co-explore the familiar
and co-develop the new. In such a process we create knowledge
and expertice that become specific in our local situation and
circumstances. (Anderson, 2000, p. 206) Dialogue is about increasing
understanding rather than changing minds. It shifts relationships
in directions that usually reveal new possibilities for reducing
polarizations and for engaging in collaborative action.
Transformative or enabling dialogues have also obvious links
with nonrational aspects of sociability and well-being. The authors
like Michael Bakhtin (1981) and John Shotter (1993) believe that
what makes interaction-dialogue inspiring, meaningful, or resonating,
and thus capable of diminishing isolation and increasing connectedness,
cannot be understood in any purely cognitive or rational way.
This means a degree of allowed unpredictability, which is needed
for freshness and interest, and a safe enough context for interaction.
Praxis or Theory Lived Through
A year ago when I met Jaakko (9 years) he was in grade three
in a primary school. He lived together with his mother Jaana,
stepfather Pertti and little brother Heikki (6 years). Both parents
were unemployed, consumed alcohol problematically and were living
on a social help. Child protecting authorities were working with
the family, and there was a threat to take the children away from
their family. Jaakko´s school attendance was not so good:
he was constantly fighting with his peers, was stealing and lying,
acted defiantly towards teachers and performed clearly under his
own level in school work. The contacts from the Social Office
and from the school were usually met with a hostile attitude by
mother. When the teacher was arranging the school meeting, mother
told on the phone that she will be there, but only in order to
defend her son against authorities. And she didn´t want
her son or the stepfather to participate in the gathering.
The team that met mother consisted of a teacher, a social worker,
a school principal and a school psychologist. Mother was told
that the school was experimenting with a new way of working, a
way that would give voice both to the hope and worry in people´s
life. She was asked whether she would be willing to participate
in a little bit “different” meeting guided by the
school psychologist. During this meeting talking and listening
would be separated from each other: mother would be asked some
questions and the team would listen without any comments. After
this the team would be asked some questions and now it would be
mother´s turn to listen. All this would be done during one
hour, because the children were waiting to have the teacher back
for the next class. Mother gave her permission for all this.
“I wonder what it is that you appreciate the most in
your son? What it is about him that you feel is really worth defending?
Looking first a little bit astonished, mother started, in a little
while, to tell how annoyed she has felt because of the contacts
from the Social Office and how humiliating and scary it is to
think that somebody would take the children from her. “You
don´t know Jaakko! Basically he is a good boy. I just don´t
know what has got into him lately.” Mother shared also her
desperation and helplessness in the situation. “But still,
and I don´t know why, I kind of trust him.” She told
also how she had taken the boy into an junior team to play ice
hockey in order to “discharge his energy out there”.
After this the following questions were asked: “I wonder
what it is that has maintained your connection to the confidence
in Jaakko in spite of all the turbulence in your life? How did
you prepare yourself to make the decision to take your son into
the ice hockey team? What else has happened in your life that
is connected to this ability of yours to make decisions? What
does this tell to you about what you want from life? What do you
suppose this tells me about what you think is important and what
you value in life? What hopes and dreams do you hold for your
son´s and your own life in relation to these values? What
ways of being in the world are these dreams a reflection of? What
does this tell you about yourself? Who among your loved ones would
be least surprised to hear that you were able to make this decision?
What might he/she witnessed you doing, in times past, that made
it possible for he/she to predict that one day you would be able
to make decisions also in a turbulent life situation?
While answering these questions the team could also hear Jaana´s
gloomy thoughts about how she often thinks that “there is
something wrong with him” and that some day Jaakko will
be driven into big trouble with authorities and that he will never
find a decent place in society. “This Worry is constantly
in my life.” After this the following question were asked:
“Does the Worry effect your relationships with family
members? Does It effect your moods and feelings? How is the Worry
effecting how you see yourself as a mother? Is the Worry all the
time as strong or are there times when It is less influential?
Would you say the Worry is useful, or not useful, or something
else in your life? Why? After answering these questions Jaana
told also that the Worry decreases always when there are periods
without telephone calls from school and when she has the opportunity
to talk with her mother about the kids.
Now it was mother´s turn to listen and team´s turn
to talk. “What did it mean to you to hear these stories?
What touched or moved you the most? If the Worry, considering
Jaakko, is in your life, how does it look like? Any experiences
what It likes or dislikes? Several team members expressed
how touched they were about mother´s ability to make decisions
concerning her son´s life and they also shared some of their
own experiences about decision making in their own lives and the
effects of doing so. Several stories about the Worry were also
told. (“The Worry gets bigger in my mind when I think that
no one will do anything in the present situation”. “The
Worry didn´t like the situation when I was talking an other
day about the grandmother with Jaakko.” “The Worry
got jumpy when I heard there is still room in a smaller class.”)
When mother reflected on the stories heard, she looked very thoughtful
and she told also that there are many things now for her to think
about. ”And I need some time to do it.” At the end
of the meeting school psychologist asked the mother for a permission
to send her a letter, where he would kind of give his afterthoughts
about the meeting. After receiving this permission the following
letter was posted to the mother.
Dear Jaana, I´m writing this letter to you because
I often get many thoughts after meeting people and a letter gives
me a good opportunity to express them afterwards. Talking with
you and the team yesterday touched me in many ways and awakened
also some new thoughts which I want to share with you.
Jaana, I have been thinking whether you remember how your
life was before the Worry entered into it. What parts of your
previous life has the Worry succeeded to invalidate the most?
What has been the most effective way the Worry has manipulated
I have also been wondering whether Pertti knows about your
deep trust in your son. And if he knows this, what effects is
this probably having on him. Is this trust showing itself somehow
also in your relationship towards him? While I was remembering
our meeting, I was also thinking what steps you have taken or
what you have done in order to preserve this connection to your
trust? And could you probably name a quality or a skill with which
you have maintained this connection during all these years?
Jaana, what are your own thoughts at the moment about the
life that is suitable for your son and a person like you? Would
I be the life under the power of the Worry or would it be something
else? And if you would continue your discussions with your mother
about the kids, what would her thoughts be about al this?
I completely trust – because you seem to be a person
who wants to think peacefully things over – that you know,
when and how you want to react to this letter.
Two days after mother received the letter she phoned the school
psychologist asking for her son a possible placement in the smaller
group. At the moment Jaakko is attending his school in a special
class, going in therapy and doing moderately well. Mother and
father are still unemployed, but looking for the opportunities
to find a job.
Above I have tried to describe a way of working where you –
within the narrative metaphor – scaffold preferred and richly
described counter stories for the problem story. These descriptions
include the knowledges and skills of living that are relevant
to addressing peoples problems. In school (and also elsewhere)
the problem story often covers the whole richness of life and
the many possibilities included for personal agency.
One of the loveliest metaphors by Heinz von Foerster, a physicist
and a philosopher, who had a great influence on the field of family
therapy, was the dance: “In the reflection, in the eyes
of the other, your own humanity begins to develop. Which you cannot
do in a monologue. You have to dance with somebody else to recognize
who you are”. (Thomas, 2003, p. 14) In this paper words
do not possess their power in themselves: they are empty of inherent
meaning. It is my hope that they will get their meaning and power
in the meeting of your world, my reader. And they can become alive
in the inner and outer dialogues and interpretations that, in
their own different ways, will bring this narrative further into
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