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Shifting Polarized Positions: A Narrative Approach to Teacher Education

reviewed by Cheryl J. Craig - March 01, 2011

coverTitle: Shifting Polarized Positions: A Narrative Approach to Teacher Education
Author(s): Xin Li, Carola Conle, and Freema Elbaz Luwisch
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433100053, Pages: 357, Year: 2009
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In Shifting Polarized Positions: A Narrative Approach to Teacher Education, Xin Li, Carola Conle, and Freema Elbaz-Luwisch lay their manifold experiences of multiculturalism, narrative inquiry, and teacher education alongside one another. The authors’ goal is to address what arguably is the world’s most pressing problem: increased polarization manifested in a number of different spheres, with teacher education—the authors’ area of interest—being one of them. Li, Conle, and Elbaz-Luwisch are amply qualified to take on their chosen task. Not only are they teacher educators and narrative inquirers, each currently resides in a country that is not their place of birth. Li lives and works in the U.S. as a Canadian citizen who originally emigrated from China; Conle immigrated to Canada from Germany; and Elbaz-Luwisch left Canada to live in Israel. Also, all presently teach foundation classes to preservice and graduate students enrolled in education programs. In short, the authors have personally experienced the phenomena that they probe professionally in the volume.

To begin their shared investigation, Li, Conle, and Elbaz-Luwisch broadly introduce globalization as the prevailing world view, one that brings with it the power to unite humanity as well as the possibility of increased fragmentation. As teacher educators, the authors pose the following critical questions: Can polarized positions be shifted, and how might this be achieved? Can polarization be considered an opportunity instead of an obstacle? How might this happen? And how might mutual understanding be achieved? (p. 3).

Li, Conle, and Elbaz-Luwisch then launch their robust inquiry with one of the high points of the volume: the stories of their lives. The rich narrative each renders shows rather than tells how globalism has affected flesh-and-blood people such as themselves. Furthermore, the discoveries they come to know along the way are not just a case of pigeon-holing some countries and people as being good and other countries and people as being bad; their discourse is about all countries and all people struggling with shifting circumstances and the changing identities associated with them. Readers come away from this section with a keen understanding that the challenges of globalization (unification, homogenization, omnipresence of difference) will never be conclusively settled. This further heightens the need for a way to respond appropriately to shifting polarized positions.

Having learned from and enjoyed Chapter 1 and its companion literature review in Chapter 2, I initially was surprised to find that the next three chapters were single-authored by Li (Chapters 3-5), followed by two chapters single-authored by Conle (Chapters 6-7) and two chapters single-authored by Elbaz-Luwisch (Chapters 8-9). However, when I carefully read the chapters I understood that a larger purpose was at work. The authors wanted to demonstrate how each of them uses a different philosophical frame to arrive at their shared understandings of shifting polarized positions—Li, Chinese Daoism coupled with Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship; Conle, continental hermeneutics; and Elbaz-Luwisch the Bakhtinian concept of dialogue. In short, they consolidated their independent research and presented it collaboratively in order to press on with the topic at hand: a narrative approach to altering polarization in teacher education.

Before proceeding with their shared inquiry, I would like to focus on the tensions each author addressed in their personally authored chapters. Li took up polarization as an asset to intersubjectivity (Chapter 3), multiculturalizing opposites through a service learning project (Chapter 4), and webs of opposites as opportunities for interplay and possibilities for multiplying and compounding learning (Chapter 5). Next, Conle’s focused on tensions as sources of inquiry (Chapter 6) and the giving and taking of voice in interpretive circles (Chapter 7). Then, in Chapters 8 and 9, Elbaz-Luwisch dealt with the enormous complexities underlying teacher education in Israel (Chapter 8) and feeling, imagination, and body in encounters of difference (Chapter 9). Each of these chapters demonstrates how wide awake the authors are to the particularities of their specific places of work, the constellation of relationships unfolding within them, and the kinds of narrative probing necessary to advance learning. Attention turns from the question, “Is this story true?,” becoming replaced by the query, “For whom is it true and why?” (Sfard, Preface, p. xi). In essence, focus shifts to why actors in the featured stories see the world the way they do and what might be done to promote their seeing of their personal experience through other people’s eyes, viewpoints, and words, in addition to their own. All the while, the authors are drawing readers into their narrative worlds, urging us to consider their teaching practices in light of the pedagogical stories they live and tell, and re-live and re-tell.

Moving forward, Chapter 10, which is collaboratively written, focuses on creating conditions for narrative encounters involving contexts, climate, and pedagogical moves. The chapter is a hopeful one, filled with rich exemplars of three individuals provoking change in teacher education “space[s] where [they] actually live” (p. 221). Three major strategies are featured along with examples carved by the authors. Where narrative readiness, the first pedagogical move is concerned, Conle discusses a memory image, whereas Elbaz-Luwisch tells of how a narrative assignment was developed, and Li focuses on working with differences narratively. The second instructional move, narrative engagement, offers examples of small group work (Elbaz-Luwisch), outlines the creation of a new narrative environment (Li), and shows how to link experiences with narrative themes (Li). Finally, to develop narrative modes of expression, the third pedagogical thrust, four strategies are elaborated: narratively responding to reading (Conle), owning one’s own perceptions (Conle), unpacking experiential and culturally laden details (Li), and learning to ask narrative questions (Li). Each of these strategies addresses struggles that teacher educators frequently encounter in the contested classroom space (Craig, 2009) as they attempt to engage in curriculum-making alongside increasingly diverse students.

The concepts and activities in Chapter 10 combine to comprise a pedagogy of narrative shifting. Unlike other pedagogies, the one the authors propose is not a formulaic model. Rather, it is a set of conditions for learning within which change can—and does—happen. These conditions include, but are not limited to, personal narrative restorying, narrative world travelling (Lugones, 1989), narrative splicing, and narrative creativity. Personal narrative restorying allows for “changes with within” through engaging students in the writing of thick descriptions, paying attention to diverse issues, acknowledging feelings, and exploring cultural validation in real-world situations. Where world traveling is concerned, it involves narrative humanizing, appropriating new ideas and modifying social visions, and the blurring of cultural boundaries through virtual journeys. The pedagogy furthermore includes narrative splicing (described earlier by Li) and narrative creativity, which may involve service learning projects and the development of friendships through narrative bonding. The conditions named here are by no means conclusive because the pedagogy of narrative shifting conceptualization, according to the authors, is still under construction. However, it is quite likely that the conditions the authors outline will never be set in stone because things in the practical world (including teachers’ practices), as Schwab (1969) sagely informed us, can always be otherwise.   

To conclude the volume, Chapter 12 focuses on diversity within unity and unity within diversity. But Li, Conle, and Elbaz-Luwisch do not approach the chapter’s theme in a clichéd way. Instead, they hunker back to the origins and manifestations of polarization in society and center fully on shifts in attitudes, opinions, and actions that can happen in moments of encounter and hermeneutical learning. At the same time, they share several cautionary notes having to do with power differences and issues of rationality as well as the moral quality of narratives. Warnings about challenges that can arise around practice and conceptual requirements and intersubjectivity as a product of mutual storytelling are additionally issued.   

All in all, Li, Conle, and Elbaz-Luwisch convincingly demonstrate in this volume that narrative inquiry has great potential to prevent increased polarization and to diminish existing ambivalence among groups. Given the success of their work undertaken in three different international contexts, it seems entirely reasonable that their proposal for the adoption of their assumptions as a “working hypothesis” or as “an ideal that is already implicitly present in everyday communication that aims at mutual understanding” (p. 321) be accepted. For Li, Conle, Elbaz-Luwisch, and this reviewer, this would be an excellent place to start—given that no grand solutions exist for what possibly is the world’s most pernicious and enduring challenge.


Craig, C. (2009). The contested classroom space: A decade of lived education policy in Texas schools. American Educational Research Journal, 46(4), 1034-1059.

Lugones, M. (1987). Playfulness, “world”-travelling, and loving perception. Hypatia, 10(2), 23-43.

Schwab, J. J. (1969). The practical: A language for curriculum. School Review, 78, 1-23.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16353, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:42:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Cheryl J. Craig
    University of Houston
    E-mail Author
    CHERYL J. CRAIG, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, University of Houston, where she coordinates the Teaching and Teacher Education program and is the Director of Elementary Education. Her research centers on the influence of school reform on teachers’ knowledge developments and their communities of knowing. Her book, Narrative Inquiries of School Reform, appeared in 2003 (Information Age Publishing). Craig is the co-editor of the following Association of Teacher Educators’ Yearbooks: Imagining a Renaissance in Teacher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), Teacher Learning in Small Group Settings (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), and Cultivating Curious and Creative Minds, Part 1 (Roman & Littlefield, 2010).
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