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Narrative in-between spaces of pedagogical research

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

In this piece, Tanu Biswas and Natasha Janzen Ulbricht draw on the methodological concept of ‘narrative in-between spaces’ (Kinnunen and Puroila 2016). They trace the audio data from school pupils reflecting on the difficulties around the education posed in lockdown in Germany. They show how teacher-students listened to and reflected on the recordings to access children's changing 'lifeworlds'.

Image 1: Screenshot of an interview transcription recorded during lockdown. In the section of the interview with a light blue background Pia speaks more quietly than Amjad. These differences in volume are reflected in the size of the sound waves in the upper half of the image. Photo: Janzen Ulbricht

Translation to Image 1:

Amjad (Black): So you don’t like classes at home.

Pia (Red): It works somehow, but I really just don’t like to do some things at home.

As the introduction of November’s blog theme Ways of Listening to Children and Youth suggests -children can contribute to debates in society about their well-being, development, and daily life. For Natasha doing exactly this was important, which is how she turned to ethnography, particularly as done in the childhood studies tradition where she came across Kinnunen & Puroila’s interpretation of ‘narrative in-between space’. Although the concept of ‘giving voice’ has been contested in ethnography (see Croegaert 2020: 119), there is a wide agreement that narratives can make relationships between people visible (Hill 2005; Kinnunen and Puroila 2016).

In their article on young children and photography, Kinnunen and Puroila (2016) reference Caine's (2007) concept of narrative in-between space. Here, narration offers a space that lies ‘in-between’ researchers and participants where life unfolds in relation to each other (2016: 238). Seen this way, research is not understood as a process of simply transferring information from one person to another, but rather, that knowledge is co-constructed between individuals in the narrative in-between spaces. Even though the social and relational dimension of the narrative in-between space is key, the significance of the physical and material environment also cannot be ignored. Also related to how knowledge can be co-constructed to emphasise the agency of research participants, Tanu had previously adopted a childist approach to research not as facing a particular problem to be solved, but as "participating in the mysterious" (Biswas 2020: 77). She had built upon Gallacher and Gallagher's (2008) understanding of research with children as muddling through with the adult researcher’s ignorance as a starting point. In such approaches, data is not forced to become a building block that produces research results but becomes a way to sustain a process of questioning (Biswas 2020) which includes emotions as they arise in interactions with others (Stodulka et al. 2019). This understanding of ‘data’ and the mediumistic possibilities it opens for subjective analytical engagement in qualitative processes of inquiry can be particularly useful for pedagogy-oriented research with children because: ‘education’ in so far as it is an intergenerational relationship (Hoveid & Hoveid 2019) is a highly inter-subjective process that happens primarily through social relationships – not curricula and infrastructure. While more positivistic qualitative or quantitative methods can and do help to understand macro-dimensions of for e.g., education sectors across the globe and so on, they serve adults in administrative roles, not so much highly subjective needs of teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil relationships that enable the pedagogical relationality. In this sense, methodological insights available through the plethora of phenomenological and ethnography-based insights that Childhood Studies have to offer can help innovation in an intergenerational relationship called - pedagogy.

The global pandemic has changed contemporary pedagogical relationships since ‘schools’ are no longer the geographical sites where ‘education’ is expected to ‘happen’. On 17 March 2020, the German capital city of Berlin closed all public and private schools for almost five weeks and ‘school’ started becoming ‘a learning experience at home’. Natasha’s research on language learning was planned for school-contexts, but what ‘school’ means itself had transformed. Moreover, since the lockdown was a new situation, parents and teachers and pupils had new thoughts and feelings that Natasha got access to but had not considered before as part of her research objectives. Natasha, with the help of an interview assistant (Amjad, name changed), now recorded interviews with school pupils, teachers and parents to share ‘what it was like to be a pupil in school with her university teacher students’, who were in teacher training but had never experienced what it was like to be in lockdown as a child and learning at home.

During the lockdown in Germany ‘education’ in some ways moved from schools to a very private place, the home. German society is in general rather private, where, especially when it comes to children, issues of data privacy are important. At the same time in the role of a researcher, others seemed willing to share their stories with Natasha, especially if they saw her as able to pass on their struggles (in the form of sharing space and their opinions with education) to others who needed this information (future teachers who will be working in a situation they never experienced as a learner). Under these conditions, people who were private with their information were willing to share their stories in the form of shared space and recorded speech. These recordings and permission to share them are a chance to understand children in the context in which they live. Natasha used her ‘power to pass on information’ and delegated information to her future teacher-students, who in turn seemed to have offered her a gift of insight by sharing their concerns about how the loss of sociality could affect Pia’s future as a ‘speaker’ of the English language. She found the particular methodological concept of ‘narrative in-between spaces’ (Kinnunen and Puroila 2016) helpful because she experienced the new ‘in-between’ social spaces as opening up and revealing aspects of ‘education’ that didn’t normally encounter in the physical school environment. She was captivated for example by how her university teacher-students who heard the ‘audio data’ sensed a connection between:

a school pupil feeling disconnected from the physical sociality that school offered her because she missed her friends and was feeling unable to do her schoolwork.

Natasha’s teacher-students had somehow managed to ‘listen’ to the interconnection between feeling disconnected from friends (peers) and feeling unable through the ‘audio data’ that Natasha played for them. Consequently, the ‘listening’ elicited concern in them about long-term consequences of the school pupils’ oral embodiment of the language i.e., would Pia (the school pupil, the name changed) speak English in the future if she is disconnected from peers and demotivated to learn in the present? The written performance of the English language was not as much a concern for Natasha’s university teacher-students. The methodological tools and epistemological paradigms (e.g., what constitutes legitimate knowledge etc.) that her field offered did not quite give Natasha the legitimacy to share the insights that university teacher-students were offering her in terms of new hints to ask questions such as: how pupils feel, what teachers do to connect with their pupils and where parents support and worry about their children and vice-versa. Natasha was ‘listening to children’ not so much through the audio files and transcription, rather through the mediation of an entirely new sociality that was available to her by her university teacher-students. A particularly curious aspect here is that Natasha’s teacher-students did not express their insights during the formal written assignment for the listening exercise, but afterward – during the time could talk with their teacher i.e., Natasha. Natasha shared the interview between Pia (school pupil) and Amjad (the interviewer) as an audio file with her small group of teacher-students, they were assigned the task of summarising it. In their written summary, the teacher-students reported the facts of the interview, but when they presented their results orally, they added that they were worried about Pia and concerned that if the lockdown would continue, she might stop engaging in learning English at all. Perhaps, this occurred because how particular disciplines and (more importantly) traditions frame ‘pedagogy’, ‘method’ ‘analysis’ and so on, itself add constraints to exploring a phenomenon by ‘listening to children’.


Natasha was concerned that the problem that the interview between Pia and Amjad focuses on (Pia feeling disconnected from school and missing her friends, and feeling unable to do her schoolwork, with teacher-students sensing this connection and being concerned about the long-term consequences in their oral linguistic embodiment, seemed very far away and inconsequential compared to Global South children being forced to do dangerous work to support their families due to the pandemic. To this, Tanu responded that it seems unreasonable to compare childhoods blindly across socio-economic classes (e.g., German school children with Indian working children). What would be more pertinent for privileged Global North researchers if they want to gain comparative insights – is to compare north-south childhoods with similar access to schooling and the digital technologies that enabled the transformation. Moreover, Tanu had neither developed her methodological approach with children in the Global South nor was she addressing adult-child relationships in the global south (Biswas 2020). So, the ‘relevance’ of children’s struggles in the pandemic needs to be relativised with care, especially if one wants to ‘compare’ north-south childhoods. This requires sifting and fine-tuning the nuances of subjective methodologies. Having said that, tapping into diverse socialities available to the researcher in order to develop their empathetic listening can have positive repercussions, especially in pedagogical research. Using interviews that record and share stories with relevant adult groups (e.g., future teachers) that would not otherwise have access to children’s changing lifeworlds can give significant insights to future educators no matter what the situation (Germany or India).


Biswas, Tanu 2020. Little Things Matter Much: Childist Ideas for a Pedagogy of Philosophy in an Overheated World. Munich: Büro Himmelgrün. Caine, Vera 2007. Dwelling with/in stories: ongoing conversations about narrative inquiry, including visual narrative inquiry, imagination, and relational ethics. (PhD Thesis). Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: University of Alberta. Croegaert, Ana 2020. Bosnian Refugees in Chicago: Gender, Performance, and Post-war Economies. London: Rowman & Littlefield. Gallacher, Lesley-Anne & Michael Gallagher. 2008. Methodological Immaturity in Childhood Research?: Thinking through ‘participatory methods’. In: Childhood, 15 (4), 499–516. [] Hill, Jane (Ed.) 2005. Finding Culture in Narrative. In: Finding Culture in Talk: A Collection of Methods. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 157–202. Hoveid, H., & Hoveid, M. (2019). Making Education Educational: A Reflexive Approach to Teaching. Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland. Kinnunen, Susanna & Anna-Maija Puroila, 2016. ‘If my sister was here’ – The narrative in-between space in young children’s photography process. Childhood, 23(2), 236–254. [] Stodulka, Thomas, Samia Dinkelaker & Ferdiansyah Thajib (Eds.) 2019. Affective Dimensions of Fieldwork and Ethnography. Cham: Springer International Publishing. []


Dr. Tanu Biswas is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bayreuth in the Department of Philosophy. Her current research focuses on the educational value of children’s civil disobedience for climate justice. She contributes to critical discussions in Philosophy of Education, Childism and Childhood Studies.


Natasha Janzen Ulbricht is a doctoral candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities. Before that she studied applied linguistics and trained teachers of English as a foreign language in Germany, Zambia and the USA. Her research interests include gesture and their role in embodied teaching and learning.


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