Olga Agapova

In educational work with senior citizens, the biographical method is a useful tool for initiating learning, changing behaviour, seeing one's own story and history as a whole from a different angle, and drawing conclusions for the present day. Olga Agapova, who heads the DVV International project office in Saint Petersburg in Russia, describes what is meant by this method, and what role it can play in adult education.

Biographical Learning in Adult Education

"People's life stories were often more interesting than they were themselves," was the view taken by Iosip Brodski, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in one of his last interviews about the people with whom he spent time in prison. This observation by the great writer would seem to mirror one of the key aspects of biographical work as a method of adult education. There is a certain discrepancy between how people like to portray themselves, and what is actually inside them. This thought is not new, and it shows up in art, philosophy and psychology. The only area where it is not given adequate attention is adult education. Analysing one's own life and the history of one's own family in the learning process stimulates self-development and makes it possible to shape the relationship between (older) people and their surroundings harmoniously, to identify certain inner resources, and thereby to sketch out markers and prospects for further sensible development.

Each person is unique, as is each life story and each destiny, and biographical work can be equally unique. The opinion used to be widespread that biographical learning was only suited to education for older people, but it has gradually become apparent that people in their middle years and young people also enjoy taking part in courses that use this approach.

The biographical method in education means the totality of all methods enabling the life story of a specific person to be captured and examined through group work.

A life story may be described as the story of a person's development, governed by the interplay of specific factors such as nationality, environment, language/dialect, etc. A person's path through life may also be influenced by such parameters as sense of belonging, place of origin, individual life plans and chance occurrences. Work on these "elements" of individual human lives in the framework of educational programmes makes it easier to understand the story of human life as a whole.

The interplay and interaction between these factors (including nationality), both when they agree and when they conflict with one other, "carry" people through life so to speak and influence their decisions, actions and attitudes.

In the course of life, every person forms distinct principles for living (and is able to make use of them in complex situations; sometimes they are declared openly, and sometimes they remain in the intimate area to which others have no access). Principles for living make it easier to "structure" and understand life. The expression of principles for living through various forms of group work also helps people to understand their own lives.

In every life there are definite milestones that can be seen as turning points. These may relate to particular events in national history, or in working or private life. While everyone's private circumstances differ, general historical processes, key events in national history, take the form of shared experiences in the lives of individuals, so that people can be regarded in terms of their whole generation (albeit with widely varying fortunes, characters and outlooks on the world). Evidence of this is provided by the celebrated "1960s generation" in this country or the so-called "lost generation" in Europe. The history of a state (or of a particular period) may in such cases have an exceptional impact, "dictating" individual fortunes. However, people should not be seen as belonging to a given generation purely on the grounds of their age, as this may make it difficult for them to perceive their own personalities, or may lead them to analyse their lives simplistically and inadequately. Discussions about different generations are one aspect of the biographical method.

A life story is not the same as a career. The former is a construct, a particular structure that exists in people's consciousness. A single element of a life story is an event, which is defined by having a be-ginning and an end. Apart from the essential elements (events), a life story also contains a variety of transitions, bridges, precipices, unseen mismatches, obstacles and "accelerators". Because of these "auxiliary elements", a life story does not break down into individual fragments, but rather determines the overall direction of life, while also incorporating into a person's life story the stories of other people, and other phenomena and occurrences.

Basing educational work with adults on the biographical method therefore represents the creation of mental constructs, the structure of which becomes apparent in the present in the context of situations actually experienced in the past.

The biographical method is underpinned by memories, the repetition in thought of events, of episodes which have remained in the memory. In the general cultural sense, memory fulfils a variety of functions.

Memory as ritual: formerly a predominant form of social experience; important for community identity and traditional upbringing. The content of ritual memory reflects a kind of unwritten law and procedures, the aim of which is to support traditional values. Its main feature is a tendency to remain stable, to retain its original form.

Memory as a dialogue between time and one recipient: the key aspect of this function is time, which changes people. Although a person may be talking about one and the same event, he or she will describe the same fact or story in differing ways. This means that the past becomes transformed in people's consciousness. People change over time, and experiences are seen from new angles. Events and experiences are "re-ordered", and new aspects and details come to stand out. The relationship with the past also depends on the present-day situation in which people find themselves. The position in relation to the past (and consequently in relation to oneself in the past and in the present) changes according to the person to whom memory is directed. In a certain sense, memory is a specific product of a dialogue between the narrator and the listener(s). This is the INTERACTIVITY of the biographical method, when the process of memory as dialogue is built up, in which the narrator and the listener, the past and the present, the event and a dynamic relationship to it, all play equally active roles. Such an approach is in essence an internal task, requiring people to be honest and open with themselves, and willing to enter into dialogue.

Memory as trauma: It is well known that neither victims nor perpetrators like to remember what they found painful and changed their lives; they do not want it to "break out again". Fears once experienced bring pain and will not leave people in peace. Sometimes a question asked directly about a personal history can conjure up painful circumstances or negative feelings. This is permitted in some forms of psychotherapy, but it should be avoided if at all possible in educational work with older people. Although the past may contain difficult memories, pain and loss, older learners need to feel secure and comfortable. Uncontroversial themes should be discussed during early sessions (social, everyday, inconsequential and unbiased descriptive topics); they make it possible to find out what roles people formerly played. If the discussion wanders into "dangerous territory", it is useful to work with questions such as "What helped you to over-come the situation?"

In this context, the question arises of the purpose of thinking about one's own life through education. As people grow older, their own life stories invariably become increasingly important to them. Questions crop up: Why do we spend more time thinking about the past? Why is every new experience compared with what we went through before? Is what is new "slotted into" past experience or not? The willingness to accept what is new depends on the earlier experiences fixed in our lives and influences the choices we make, our interests, priorities and values. If present-day impressions are in concert with the past and are associated with positive feelings or memories from the past, what is new today is accepted. If present-day experiences do not find echoes in the past, adults will at best feel indifferent, or may even behave with active antagonism towards new experiences. Earlier experiences thus influence present-day impressions and relationships and partially "dictate" behaviour This means that every earlier experience is the enemy of the new. How can yesterday and today be "reconciled"? How can this conflict be overcome? The solution may lie in looking at earlier experiences with other eyes. Experiences that do not fit with present-day attitudes, if reworked in this way, create new perceptions and determine people's attitudes in the sense of what they themselves regard as making sense.

The fact that we develop inner boundaries of the explicable as part of our biographical constructs also proves important, since we reject whatever does not fit with our own concepts. On the other hand, what-ever a particular person regards as important for the life of society, whatever was part of or coincides with earlier experience, whatever can be built on and expanded and therefore f its that person's concept of life, is adopted.

The biographical method is therefore an opportunity to go more deeply into life's experiences and to expand them as a way of finding oneself, since it makes it possible to change one's stand point: if one can see oneself today from the perspective of 30 years ago, then the relationship with the current situation will change. And if one looks at the situation in the past from the standpoint of the present, it will appear in a totally different light.

Moreover, people are both complicated and simple at the same time. We soak up like sponges not only what is fine, but also a whole range of clichés, home truths and stereotypical opinions (which are far simpler, more accessible and hence easier to grasp), out of which mass culture is in fact "woven". Stereotypes can influence people's perceptions of their lives and fortunes. Some of the difficulties in practical biographical education work are the following "traps":

  • One is the desire to amaze listeners or readers. The narrator may use all kinds of "aids", pseudo-literary techniques (pathos, hyper-bole, superfluous description), which inevitably lead to self-admiration and reduce the value of the entire activity.
  • The next problem, which is closely connected to the first difficulty, is the use of templates, clichés and stereotypical verbal images borrowed from journalism. The use of alien literary "products" is by no means an intentional borrowing, since people's own experiences are gradually overlaid by similar impressions drawn from other sources and assimilated. The result is clichés and fixed, ready-made phrases ("our great homeland", "heroic defenders", "brave task"). The telling of stories becomes a kind of ritual, based on the transmission of generalizations and repetitions, which re-place an understanding of and a live dialogue with the past.
  • Another significant problem is the need to define the position of the learner. We said above that the biographical method requires an open, confidential conversation. Learners often need to abandon their customary roles and masks, with the result that they find themselves in an uncomfortable or even a vulnerable position. For Russian senior citizens, talking about the past often provides an opportunity to make up for their dissatisfaction with their present lives. If the narrator stands at the centre of the story, there may be the temptation to want to appear in an (even) better light, and to justify his or her point of view (then and now), in order to stand out in some way. For the purposes of biographical work, it is more important to replace "seeming" by "being".

Such manifestations, which have been observed in a variety of groups, in a variety of regions and among a variety of listeners, simplify the purpose of the work and turn it into an end in itself (remembering for the sake of remembering) and hence are barriers to understanding one's own life.

One of the possible ways of turning biographical work into a truly effective instrument of education lies in the narrative method.

The use of narrative1 as a means of organizing and analysing a person's life experiences, thinking about them and putting them in order, appears to be the kind of educational activity that can overcome the difficulties in biographical learning mentioned above.

It is well known that many older learners in various educational programmes, courses and workshops find the main, almost the essential, value of them to be the opportunity "to talk to people like me", "to communicate with people who understand you", "to share memories with someone". It has been seen that we all have favourite stories about ourselves, which we can tell repeatedly with visible pleasure, without their losing their attraction or novelty, topicality or meaning for the narrator. At the same time, the identical event is never recounted in exactly the same way: intuitively, the author and narrator chooses the style, way of speaking and speed; and the necessary details and even the nature of the text chosen depend on the specific circumstances (of today).

This means, that while people tell their story, they not only pay attention to the sequence of events experienced, but they also interpret them. Hence, the story itself is perceived by the others as something consistent, something that exists in the form of a finished account (a genuine story)

As a narrator recounts a story, its content necessarily comes into contact with the whole complex of the listener's perception of the world. The listener's life values, experiences and current feelings are drawn into the active process of thinking about the story. This gives a story that ended in the past and appears to be fixed and immobile, the room for reinterpretation and hence also for transformation being enriched by new meanings, attitudes and points of view. Gradually, indirectly, learners come to the conviction that there is not and cannot be any fixed immutable truth, that the process of development, of dynamic forward movement, inevitably means abandoning some old ideals, and that their own attitudes and convictions, although firm and based on experience, are by no means the only possible ones. Mutual enrichment and variety in the broad sense, create a more rounded, comprehensive world picture which is therefore more harmonious.

In educational work with adults, autobiographical narrative seems to be a particularly important system of dealing with memories; it is a construct made up of stories of a person's life experiences, clad in a particular form of self-revelation.

When people begin their stories, they acknowledge that the account needs to be understood and accepted. The narrator usually has an intuitive competence over the rules for structuring the story. The narrator unconsciously appreciates that the story must be consistent and finished (i.e. it must have a beginning and an end, must be told in one style, etc.); the narrator also understands that the listeners' attention must not be "abused" (the story must be completed within a limited time), so that the most important points must be selected, the key episodes without which the story is impossible. And finally, while talking about the past, the narrator must introduce details to clarify the circumstances (time, location, persons involved, etc.) without which the meaning of the story would be incomprehensible.

No story is begun spontaneously. As in any informal conversation between friends, a stimulus, an "introduction" is needed, which arouses the desire to tell the story. In educational work with senior citizens, the following working methods may be suggested for that purpose:

  • Put forward a (sometimes fairly simple, banal) general thought or idea. If this is understood and found interesting, and if the interlocutors agree to the topic, the learner's story will unfold as an illustration of it. By way of introduction, the moderator might say:

    "We know that the foundations of the human character are laid in childhood. Can you think of a story from your childhood that has had such a strong influence on you that you still remember it? Was there some event that you think made you what you are today?"
  • Another possibility is to explore opposites by referring to some unexpected contradiction as an introductory stimulus:

    "We often hear that the victory of 1945, which had been awaited for so long, brought unalloyed joy to the lives of Soviet citizens. Can you perhaps think of a time when you felt disappointed, an occasion that has remained in your memory as running counter to the general mood of happiness?"2

A story generally contains the following components, regardless of its content and length:3 introduction and orientation (description of the time and place of the action, and the people involved); situation and complications (an obstacle arising, an unexpected development in the action, a break in the order of events); assessment of the situation (interruption of the action to show the tension/complexity/lack of clarity of the situation described); resolution (overcoming of the obstacle) and finally conclusions (end to the story, return to the present, connection with the introductory stimulus given by the moderator at the beginning).

The key concept for the narrative method in biographical education is the "occasion", which is to be understood as a completed episode (a completed story) which has remained in the memory and took place in a particular time and place of a person's life. The status of an event4 is given to it by the narrator, since it is for him or her a finished episode filled with inner meaning and "illuminating" later life (otherwise it would not have impressed itself on that person). That means that this event by no means always agrees with the facts of life that make up the person's official curriculum vitae giving the main stages in that person's life and socialization. In practical work, it can be seen that leaving school, entering university, marriage, job progression, and so on, are not regarded by people as important events that determine their destinies, while purely private, second-rank episodes (a chance encounter, an "everyday" story, a conversation that seemed unimportant at first sight, the successful resolution of an everyday problem) influence serious decisions about life, lead to sudden twists and turns in family life and predetermine people's further development. In this context, the life experiences themselves, which continue uninterrupted, form a strange kind of backdrop, sometimes being equal partners in a dialogue with the narrator, sometimes making firm demands, and sometimes retreating into the background. The following are therefore the main features of an event in the narrative method: it is a verbal record (an episode that is not fixed in oral or written form but only exists in someone's consciousness to fulfil so-called "inner needs" cannot have the status of an event). It must be unique (repetition and routine remove an event into a different category), but as mentioned above, the most important thing is that it will have remained in the memory from the narrator's point of view and is constantly reproduced because it is perceived as something unique, something that has fundamentally changed the narrator and his or her relations with the world.

Besides the recounting of a specific event, a learner's story often contains another component that is very important for further work on story-telling: the narrative motive. This is a particular belief that develops as an initial motivational stimulus and is adopted by the person - chiefly because of its real or apparent repeatability. The following statements may be seen as instances of a narrative motive:

"Given that despondency is a grievous sin ... I never give in to bad moods", "Whenever I am away from home, some piece of equipment goes wrong, as though I ought to stay at home the whole time!" "I didn't think much about my choice of career - fate made the decision for me, and I became a gynaecologist".5

When older people speak, the narrative motive may be a declaration, a means of self-presentation, but frequently it may also be the reason behind a choice or decision in real life. This means that it may be a brake or a saying that "shut off" new opportunities and prospects at some stage (an example might be the statement: "You do what you've always done - it may not be as much fun as what young people get up to, but the end result is safer.")

So-called content-filled description is also connected with the narrative motive. If a particular meaning or significance is intentionally accorded to a particular action, that meaning is invested in what does not and cannot in itself carry meaning. The most humdrum episodes are filled with meaning in this way and given particular significance. Thanks to this superfluous significance, the status of an event is given to an occurrence if the occurrence (action) stands out from the sequence of other events. An event "loaded" with this additional significance thereby acquires a symbolic meaning and becomes the inner core of both what is real and of what is potential or imagined.

One more deviant form of content-filled description should be mentioned, which is typical of and crucial to work with older people. This is the phenomenon known in the specialist literature as "family narrative", when narrators appeal to their relatives while telling the story, to the similarity or dissimilarity between family members and themselves, the main character in the story. Why should learners transform their family, who are by no means the main focus of the story, into an important background feature of the story?

The following types of text should be mentioned in this connection:

  • Highlighting what the speaker regards as positive peculiarities, characteristics and features ("Three generations of convinced communists have grown up in my family. We don't need Western ideology, we've got our own ideals", "Everyone's a good cook in our family, including the men.") While the narrator is broadcasting traditional ritual family values, he or she is at the same time building himself or herself up as a positive figure.
  • Highlighting the speaker's own uniqueness by contrasting it with the family background. Similarity/dissimilarity is an important component of people's life stories and own characteristics ("Everyone in the family liked singing, and we seldom sat around the table without a few songs. But I thought it odd.")
  • Evaluating present-day actions and situations when statements take on a moralizing, instructional tone, with moral precepts and clichés ("There have been no divorces in our family", "Brothers and sisters - we were all good at school.") They may take the form of either praise or criticism, or a kind of consolation ("All the women in our family failed in their private lives. What can you do? It's the family fate.") The similarity between private destinies can provide a strong internal motivation, governing people's actions.

Knowing about these ways in which so-called "family narrative" may appear, and about specially targeted group work, makes it possible to change learners' perspectives and attitudes This shows that the narrative method described has certain undoubted advantages in biographical education with members of the older generation. Among them are the following:

  • Lack of basic education and skills in creative activities (especially literary activities) is compensated by simply copying methods and literary clichés. This widespread difficulty can be overcome if writing and story-telling is not an end in itself; it should be directed towards a quest for meaning, for new points of reference and endeavours;
  • The outer framework of the narrative, and its clear division into individual elements, free the product (the written or oral text) from negative features - the use of fixed clichés, borrowings, declarations and precepts. These simply become redundant, disappear as something second-class, insignificant and unnecessary, being replaced by hard thinking by the learner: at all stages of the work, learners are then obliged to analyse, contrast, look for exact definitions, answer questions, etc.
  • The narrative method exactly determines the task of education and its framework of meaning - the quest for the purpose of life through self-identification and self-awareness. This removes particular dangers associated with the sensitivity of the learner, with the need to justify oneself and defend once and for all chosen behavioural strategies, and with self-presentation. The possible feelings of guilt, offence, helplessness and confusion that are associated with memories, are transformed through group processes into points of reference and new opportunities.

It should be stressed that the new values and contents uncovered in the course of practical biographical work may, when overlaid, multiply, change and add to each other, revealing new points of access, resources and unexpected opportunities for each learner. The image of the world therefore changes, becoming in the true sense of the word roomier, more colourful and more dynamic.

By evaluating events, deeds and life situations, people learn to look at what has been achieved and experienced from a different standpoint (without devaluing the former points of view), thereby developing a characteristic of critical thinking, which is so important in the system of democratic values; ultimately, people learn to look at the past from the standpoint of the present. These changes only really occur through dialogue with other people, through intensive discussion, comparison and reflection of one's own experiences in the "mirror" of the others. The biographical method indirectly influences the acquisition of democratic values because real living people, with their weaknesses and shortcomings, joys and sorrows, are placed at the centre of attention and of the educational process, in fact at the centre of the story. Their personal experiences become the main subject-matter of the thought process, and their "official" careers become the background before which true history unfolds, the story of each unique human life.


1 Narrative is one of the key concepts of the philosophy of postmodernism. The kind of oral and written narrative which structures the narrator's own experiences forms the basis for people's efforts to be in harmony with themselves, with nature and with the circumstances of existence.

2 The examples given are of course only an illustration. In the real teaching situation they depend on the specific topic of discussion, the overall aim of the course and the precise tasks to be carried out.

3 If biographical work with older people and the narrative method are ongoing rather than episodic in nature, it is sensible gradually to introduce key concepts that will become important as a category.

4 The concept of an event is analysed in research by P.Riekert, R.Ingarten, R.Bart and others.

5 This event relates to a story of having to assist at a birth that took place on a ship on 9th May 1945. Quoted from the book "Contemporaries" (Stories of Wartime Childhood), Chelyabinsk, 2005.

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